Facebook launches Graph Search: will it compete with Google?

Facebook’s launched its long-trailed social search service, allowing users of the site to answer queries such as ‘which restaurants do my friends like?’

While Facebook says it now hosts, for example, more than 240 billion photos Graph Search only reveals information that the user would be able to access anyway through existing privacy settings.

It’s currently available as a beta, in English only, and only works on PCs. In its current incarnation, it focuses on four areas: people, photos, places, and interests. Other elements, such as song listens, will be added later.

Facebook’s keen to stress that the move doesn’t position it against Google.

“Graph Search and web search are very different. Web search is designed to take a set of keywords (for example: ‘hip hop’) and provide the best possible results that match those keywords,” say director of product management Tom Stocky and director of engineering Lars Rasmussen.

“With Graph Search you combine phrases (for example: ‘my friends in New York who like Jay-Z’) to get that set of people, places, photos or other content that’s been shared on Facebook. We believe they have very different uses.”

Some analysts agree. “Will this feature go head-to-head with Google? I seriously doubt it; the two indexes contain entirely different kinds of information,” says Forrester analyst Nate Elliott.

“Will it compete with Yelp or TripAdvisor? Again, unlikely; when was the last time you posted a full-paragraph review and a star rating of a restaurant or hotel on Facebook?”

However, thanks to a deal with Bing, Graph Search does go a little further than simply displaying information from Facebook itself.

“Now when you do a web search on Facebook, the new search results page features a two-column layout with Bing-powered web results appearing on the left-hand side overlaid with social information from Facebook including how many people like a given result,” says Bing’s corporate vice president of search,  Derrick Connell.

“On the right hand side, you will see content from Facebook Pages and apps that are related to your search.”

This gives Facebook the opportunity to keep people on its site for longer, rather than losing them when they drift off to do a Google search. This will, of course, be appealing to advertisers. And while Facebook says there are ‘no immediate plans’ to make money from the service, Ovum analyst Eden Zoller believes this won’t be the case for long.

“Facebook Graph Search will no doubt leverage member data to provide advertisers with more targeted, personalized advertising opportunities going forward. But Facebook needs tread very carefully here and be mindful of user privacy,” she says.

“It claims to have built Graph Search with privacy in mind, but Facebook has a mixed track record on this front and is in the habit of pushing privacy to the limits of what is acceptable.”