Real proper technology writers, the kind who write for Wired or Slate or the BBC, got a mysterious invitation to a big event at Facebook this week. The announcement was shrouded in secrecy, but in many ways it was the worst kept secret online since the Ryan Giggs superinjunction: Yes, Facebook are now getting in to the wonderful world of Search.
Rolling out in the US already this functionality is not yet available to us in Europe, however it is clearly part of an unstoppable intention upon which Facebook Inc. have bet heavily. Various online pundits declared the much-hyped announcement of Facebook Graph Search to be a flop, and Facebook investors appeared to agree – their stock price immediately dropped 3%. But what is Facebook Graph Search?
This is part of a bigger question about search generally, and how we seek information online. In many ways the service offered by traditional search engines has become devalued and debased in recent years, every time they tweak their algorithm it seems to get worse – low quality link-bait rubbish rising to the top that doesn’t answer the questions we put to it, an entire industry built around optimising websites for search engines to get to the top of that results list based around clever tricks and techniques rather than quality of information. This is in an environment of growing fragmentation and information overload – how on earth do we find real unbiased and sound advice that is relevant to us and trustable?
For example, my compact camera just died and I want to replace it. I have an idea about my budget and what I want it to do, and I look online for a choice of models – eek, there are literally hundreds to choose from, all offering similar but different controls, modes, functions and a range of glowing reviews. And if I ask Google for ‘best compact camera’ or similar, I am inundated with affiliate sales sites thinly disguised as information-light reviews, not one from any name that I trust, and probably confusing me further with new possibilities.
So, what I would probably do is ask people I know. If I want a good budget family camera I might ask on my Facebook status or in a tweet, what my friends use and why they like it. If I want to spend a bit more I might ask a couple of friends who I know are really into photography and know their stuff, and whose judgement I personally trust already. There is too much information out there in internetland, and my pre-existing relationships serve as a way of filtering it.
This then is where Facebook search is coming from. Real time information based on your existing associations. For example imagine I arrived in Alicante and really fancied a pizza, I could check in with Facebook (once Graph Search is enabled in our region) and what Alicante pizza places my friends had liked or commented on. Or what they were saying about a new movie release… I am not sure whether I would enjoy that movie or not from the reviews perhaps, but I know my friends well enough to think that if Friend A loved it, Friend B hated it, and Friend C wasn’t bothered then it definitely is (or is not) a good fit for me.
I can see why it has a lot of potential. Facebook epitomises the phrase ‘Big Data’ – they have simply shedloads of the stuff – a billion users’ worth of comments, likes, photos, remarks and opinions. That information, which your friends choose to share, has always been there and available to you – but not, until now, in a searchable form. So, it’s going to have a big impact.
Is it a ‘Google killer?’ No – although shares in Google, LinkedIn and Yelp also dropped on the day of Facebook’s big press conference. Social search, or Facebook search or whatever we end up calling it popularly (and I’d bet good money that will not be ‘Graph search’) will serve a different purpose. You would never use it to establish facts, like ‘where is my nearest Indian restaurant?’ for example, but if you wanted to know which local restaurant you might like best, according to people you know, then this is going to be where we look in future.
Bing (Microsoft) search results will supplement responses with off-Facebook answers too though, so it will be interesting to see whether people start using Facebook search as a generic alternative to Googling, for these combined results – in that event, big G really could be hit. Google’s attempts to bridge the gap between search and social has so far not been a big success, witness the tumbleweed still rolling through the digital chasm that is Google Plus
So what are the implications for us as users when Facebook Search rolls out? Well, it might make people revisit their privacy settings for different kinds of content, and that can only be a good thing. You can also opt your preferences out of search results altogether, and the uptake of that will be interesting to note. I know I am keen to get started with it and explore the potential, once they finally roll out to ‘rest of world’ – and we will revisit this topic when we all know more.
Published in Costa Blanca News, 25-01-13