Announced this week, Facebook Graph Search has the potential to take internet search forward more than Google ever has, offering results and recommendations from those you know and trust, rather than a computer algorithm.
Mark Zuckerberg announces Faceook's Graph Search which could change the way we think about search (Credit: Reuters)
The first major product to be announced by Facebook since its stock market debut in May, Graph Search will soon give the network's billion users the ability to search for recommendations on where to eat, drink, and go on holiday, what to watch and listen to, and even for new people to meet and staff to hire.
As with most Facebook updates, Graph Search has been met with some confusion - is it designed to compete with Google, is it aimed at businesses or regular users, and is our content still as private as we want it to be?
Firstly, the name. Graph Search isn't the friendliest moniker in the book, and although it relates to Facebook's Social Graph - the web of connections and information that tie its billion users and their activities together - the jury is out on whether most users know what it is.
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Put simply, Graph Search is a tool to search Facebook, and the answers come from content posted by your friends and their friends.
Requests like "photos of Ben and I from 2004", "restaurants liked by friends and friends of friends in London" and "films liked by my friends" can be entered, and Facebook will return results based on the likes and activities of other users.
At first glance it's not much more than an update to bring more results to the search bar, but Graph Search is now being heralded by some as a tool powerful enough to challenge what Facebook actually is.
Philip Dyte of iProspect, the UK's biggest search and digital performance agency, said: "At this rate, the Facebook of the future may soon start to challenge the definition of what a social network actually is.
"One thing we know is that Graph Search is not a direct competitor to Google, or at least not Google as we currently know it. However, Google's increasing interest in the area - as represented by flirtations with personalised results, and also Google Now for Mobile - means that Facebook may have stolen a march on the next big thing."
That next big thing is a revolution in search. Google has been with us since 1998, and in that time the basic concept of entering keywords, hitting enter and getting pages and pages of links has barely changed. Adverts and promoted links have been thrown into the mix, and Google's algorithms are forever being tweaked to give us more of what we want and less of what we don't, but Facebook can do more than that.
Mountains of personal information
Whether it's by picking our age and gender from a dropdown box, checking into our favourite restaurant, or liking the brand page of a new film, we are giving Facebook mountains of information, which can be processed, ordered and served back to us through Graph Search.
Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg explained succinctly what Graph Search is aiming to do, and what the future of search is: "It's about getting information from trusted sources to make better decisions," he tweeted.
Trusted sources being our friends, and the information being anything from new films in the cinema and good places to eat Chinese food, to where to go on holiday and what Facebook games to play.
While Google - and websites like Tripadvisor - offer reviews of pubs, restaurants and hotels, these aren't written by people you know - Facebook Graph Search can give you the thoughts of your friends, and that recommendation will always have more weight behind it than a three-year-old review you found on page 19 of a Google search.
What does Facebook gain?
Presenting information about our friends in an attractive and easy-to-understand grid of results is helpful, but what does Facebook gain from this? At the moment, Facebook hasn't revealed its plans for making Graph Search mobile, and the company has not explained how Graph Search will work from 'the other side' - the side of businesses who have product and brand pages on Facebook they want to promote.
By encouraging users to search for the likes and interests of "friends of friends", businesses have a priority pass to appear on the computer screens of more users.
Say I like a local pub on Facebook, and my 319 friends can see this. Now, if any of their friends search the Graph for "London pubs liked by friends of friends" I will appear, along with my recommendation for the pub. This information has always been available, but you had to go out and dig for it. With Graph Search it's right there, on the other side of a basic search.
At first, results won't be anywhere near as wide-ranging as those from Google, but they could well be of higher quality. To get more such results, you've to make more Facebook friends. During its announcement of Graph Search, Facebook highlighted one feature being how easy it make it to find new people with similar interests and shared friends, who you might otherwise have never met.
More friends mean more connections in the Social Graph, and this further helps Facebook to sell its service - offering businesses direct access to specific audiences who have shown an interest in their product, and if they have been recommended the product by a friend, then better still.
The only website you need
Left until the end of Facebook's announcement, and hidden slightly at the foot of the Graph Search page, Bing integration is another way Zuckerberg & Co are trying to keep you away from Google - indeed, away from anywhere that isn't Facebook.
When searching Facebook for an answer won't suffice, Bing integration lets you search the web and some answers - like weather forecasts and those that can be linked to a Facebook app - appear right there, so there's no need to navigate away to any other site.
Philip Dyte of iProspect added: "Palming off traditional web queries to Bing may also prove to be the largest traffic boost the Microsoft engine has ever had, but that's no reason to think that users will necessarily embrace it any more than they have. After all, Bing has been Facebook's mapping tool for a while now and has not exactly caused a great migration from Google's product."
Finally, let us not forget that Facebook is free, and those enormous servers don't pay for themselves; Facebook is a business like any other, and to some extent we are the product as much as we are the user.
Gartner's Facebook specialist Brian Blau said after the Graph Search announcement: "It's going to lend itself to advertising or other revenue-generating products that better matches what people are looking for. Advertisers are going to be able to better target what you're interested in. It's a much more meaningful search than keyword search."
"You know Facebook will figure out how to monetise this. It's going to change the way people think about search."
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