In addition to benefits for the user in helping them navigate
their social graph, Facebook might finally get a source of intent
data for its ad targeting. Hypothetically, Facebook could add users
who search for "maternity wear" to its advertising segment of
expecting mothers, according to Chris Copeland, CEO of Group M
"The more you get people expressing intent [in search], not only
do you give them relevancy at that moment, but you can also serve
them up later on Facebook," he said.
When announcing what Facebook is calling its "graph search,"
which currently just focuses on searches for people, pictures,
interests (such as music and movies) and places, CEO Mark
Zuckerberg underscored that the product is different from web
search without mentioning Google by name. (To illustrate a
hypothetical web search, the presentation actually used a
fictitious search engine, SearchIT.com.)
Instead of taking users to links, "graph search is designed to
take a precise query and give you the answer," he said.
Model queries ranged from the whimsical to practical searches
for restaurants, a potential threat to tech companies such as
Foursquare and Yelp whose ad models depend on location-based
Queries for people could be fairly granular, like "Friends in
Palo Alto, CA who like 'Game of Thrones.'" Users will also be able
to search for photos with specific friends, photos of friends taken
in national parks (for example), and all photos they've
A hypothetical interest-related query was "Music liked by people
who like Mitt Romney."
But it's with places queries that the threat to Facebook's
competitors is most apparent. Some hypothetical queries that were
highlighted include "dentists liked by my friends" and "restaurants
in Palo Alto liked by my friends from India."
"Once the mobile component exists, I think it's very natural to
want to query your friends first for a place to eat," Mr. Copeland
said. "So I think that really will challenge the Foursquares and
the Yelps over time."
He noted that those companies have the current advantage of
richer location-based data sets, but that Facebook -- which will
use signals such as likes and check-ins for places queries,
according to its director of engineering Lars Rasmussen -- could
potentially close that gap by urging its users to start rating
restaurants and hotels. During his presentation, Mr. Zuckerberg
acknowledged that Facebook is already making an effort to do this
for restaurants to enrich its data.
"There's so many people on Facebook that you can get that signal
very quickly," he said.
The products will be rolled out to a miniscule subset of
Facebook users numbering in the hundreds or thousands today. Mr.
Zuckerberg said that adding search functionality for mobile devices
and expanding beyond English speakers were on the road map, as well
as opening up an API for developers. He equivocated on advertising
but certainly gave a nod toward the likelihood of it.
"This could potentially be a business over time, but for now
we've really focused on building this user experience," he
The scope of Facebook's ambitious to index all posts and
open-graph activities (which could include actions taken like
listening to songs on Spotify or Rdio) hints at a major big-data
project and also helps put the company's privacy overhaul last
month in context. Facebook implemented a privacy
button on users' toolbars to help them quickly identify what
content linked to them is visible, and to whom.
Mr. Zuckerberg described graph search as "privacy aware" and
emphasized that all content that can be discovered in search would
otherwise be viewable to the user who's making the query. However,
some degree of backlash seems inevitable.
"Facebook has certainly put all the right capability in for
people to control their privacy, but what I don't think people have
anticipated is that things you posted five or three years ago that
may be embarrassing or not reflective of who you are right now can
be turned up in search," said Debra Aho Williamson, eMarketer's
principal analyst. "We'll probably see a mass unliking and
untagging event as this new search feature rolls out."
Despite Mr. Zuckerberg's characterization of the product as
being immensely different from traditional web search, Bing is a
partner for it. Its results will be surfaced for queries with
results that aren't currently indexed under the Facebook focus on
places, people, interests and photos. (The example Mr. Zuckerberg
gave was "Rihanna's newest album.")
For Bing -- which last year rolled out its own social-search
product using Facebook data, which apparently got little traction
-- this could be an opportunity to gain some market share.
"I think it actually may be an opportunity for Bing if this
catches on with the Facebook power user -- the people who live on
Facebook and almost never leave," said Kevin Lee, CEO of the
search-marketing firm Didit.