Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the company's long-awaited foray into search on Tuesday with a tool that enables users to make queries of their own social graphs. While he insisted that the focus is on user experience, there can be little doubt that the product will eventually be integrated into the social network's ad business.
HOW IT WORKS
Now in beta and rolling out gradually to U.S. users, Facebook's "graph search"—which Mr. Zuckerberg took pains to differentiate from traditional web search—is designed to make information about users' connections easily searchable. Practical-use cases include the ability for a user to search for someone he or she is romantically interested in after meeting at a mutual friend's party (e.g., "Friends of my friend in Brooklyn who are single") and to search for restaurants that friends have "liked." Results that haven't been indexed will be surfaced through Bing.
HOW MARKETERS CAN BENEFIT
Brands with brick-and-mortar locations could see exposure, especially restaurants if people look to their social network for dining-out ideas. However, in order for "places" queries to be truly useful, Facebook needs more robust data than likes and check-ins. Mr. Zuckerberg noted that an effort is already under way to steer users to rate more restaurants.
WHO IS THREATENED
Location-based services such as Yelp and Foursquare, especially when Facebook rolls out graph search for mobile.
Facebook released "sponsored results" for searches last summer, and those ads are bound to become more highly sought-after if "graph search" is embraced by users. (Now being phased out, the old search box had limited functionality.)
Arguably more compelling is the layer of search-based intent data over Facebook's social context. Think of an automaker that could hypothetically advertise to friends of its fans who have recently done searches for dealerships, suggesting they're in the market for a new car.
As part of a privacy overhaul last month, Facebook added a button to its toolbar to help users identify what photos they're tagged in are visible, and to whom. Mr. Zuckerberg emphasized last week that all content viewable through graph search could otherwise be seen by users in their normal Facebook wanderings, graph search simply makes it easier.
Though privacy has been considered in the design of the search tool, the ease of unearthing content through simple queries such as "Photos I have liked" among a user base that hasn't been meticulous about reviewing their photo tags is still in obvious conflict.
"We'll probably see a mass unliking and untagging event as this new search feature rolls out," said eMarketer's principal analyst, Debra Aho Williamson.