Facebook evolved from a social network to a social toolkit when it launched Graph Search on Tuesday. It can now help pinpoint, for instance, job candidates, restaurant recommendations, potential dates and vacation destinations. But it will not locate the weather report. For that and other web searches, the social network defers to its partner Bing's results.
Facebook's entry into search takes the opposite approach of Google's entry into social. Instead of staking its claim in a new category as Google+ did, Graph Social—at least for now—expands Facebook's role in the social category. Facebook's data already powered, for instance, social recommendation sites. Its search function allows it to act like such a site itself.
Graph Search leverages Facebook's social data to pinpoint any combination of people, places, photos and interests. It is designed to field queries such as "photos of my best friend and my mom" or "friends of friends who like my favorite band and live in Palo Alto" or "Indian restaurants in Palo Alto that friends from India like."
"We wouldn’t suggest people come and do web searches on Facebook, that’s not the intent," said Mark Zuckerberg at a launch event on Tuesday.
Turning Facebook's social graph into a social tool could be valuable for advertisers because searches often proceed purchases. If I search for which cars my friends like, there's a good chance that I'm in the market for a car. Combine that with other information Facebook has about me—let's say that I have three kids and belong to the "proud soccer moms" group—and serving me an ad for a mini-van starts to make a lot of sense. It has potential to steal Google's advertisers without replicating Google itself. Facebook has previously introduced a sponsored search result product that is similar to Google Adwords, but it will not yet serve advertising in Graph Search results.
Zuckerberg dodged questions about the monetization potential for the product with his usual line: "Before we can start thinking about this as a business in a serious way, we have to continue focusing on building the user experience."
The user experience has some inherent limitations. It only will return results for data that is public or visible to you. If not many of your friends fill out their interest categories or have a "Liking" habit, your results might be thin, and if their metadata is wrong so are your search results. Was a photo taken in 2008 labeled 2010 because that's when they uploaded it? And are they really interested in that band, or do they just want people to think so?
Graph Search also solves problems its potential users are already accustomed to solving elsewhere. Instead of searching "friends of friends who are product designers and work at Google," they log into LinkedIn. Instead of searching "restaurants in Dublin liked by friends of friends who live in Dublin," they go to Yelp. Instead of searching "single friends of friends," they sign up for OkCupid.
Whether Search Graph becomes one of Facebook's most valuable assets or biggest flops depends on users' willingness to migrate their searches away from old niche standbys and onto a one-stop shop.
Zuckerberg, fielding a question about users' desires to use a product like Graph Social, said the product grew out of user requests to find information such as what their friends like and places nearby.
"I don’t know that anyone was asking for us to combine this all into one thing," he said, "but I think that it is very useful because people only have to learn one interface."
[Image: Flickr user Bart van de Biezen]