Facebook’s really big news: All search, all the time

Facebook’s Graph Search isn’t just aiming to hit Google where it hurts; the social media giant also wants to take down LinkedIn, Yelp, and Netflix.

So today was the big day, the first major Facebook announcement in nearly two years. The press conference is just wrapping up as I type this. And what did Zuckerberg & Co reveal?

A new smartphone? A mobile advertising strategy? An apology to the thousands of shareholders who took a bath on the IPO while Facebook insiders cashed out to the tune of $775 million?

Nope. Today, Mark Zuckerberg talked about search. More specifically, “Graph Search,” a way of surfacing information from your network of friends that until now has been largely inaccessible.

Starting someday soon, Graph Search will allow you to search for all of your friends who, say, live in Geneva, Switzerland, and like to yodel. Or friends of Armenian descent who attended the University of Phoenix and enjoy bratwurst and spelunking. Or friends of friends who used to have vibrant productive lives in the high tech industry but now spend all of their time noodling around on social networks clicking the Like button.

fb graph search 600p.png
Source: Facebook

OK, I made that last one up. But you get the point. All of your Facebook activity, which has been dutifully recorded and squirrelled away on massive hard drives in cavernous data centers, will soon be available to your friends by filling out a few boxes on a search form.

With Graph Search, Facebook isn’t just trying to take on Google and its (frankly lame) social search features. It’s also trying to take on LinkedIn; you can search for people by job skill or employer, for example. It’s tackling Yelp; you can see which Armenian restaurants in San Francisco your friends liked. Facebook is even taking on Netflix, making recommendations for videos you might like based on what your friends have watched. So far Facebook has only dipped its toes in the video-on-demand world, but that could easily change.

[Update: As the always-radiant Sarah A. Downey of Abine also points out, Graph Search's ability to hook you up with people who have similar Likes could also provide a strong kick in the teeth to dating sites like Match.com and OkCupid.]

It seems pretty clear that this product is the culmination of years of data collection. Seems like Zuck et al needed to hit a critical mass where there were enough fans of bratwurst and yodeling to make this kind of search work. Remember when Facebook introduced the “Like” button? This is what that was really all about.

But Graph Search also makes a pretty huge assumption: That you and all of your friends spend all of your lives on Facebook, checking in, tagging photos, and Liking things with a frenzy. That may be how Zuckerberg and his social graph use Facebook, but it’s now how I use it, nor does anyone I know.

Other interesting tidbits from the dog and pony show:

* Ten percent of Facebook CPU time is spent just chewing through people’s privacy preferences to decide what updates to display and to whom. To me, that’s another good argument for making these controls a lot simpler.

* Zuckerberg demo’d an easier way to find embarrassing photos you’ve been tagged in by others and ‘untag’ them. This is good news any way you slice it. Still, it would be nice to be able to play with this and find the inevitable limitations.

* During the demo Zucky displayed a cute picture of his older sister Randi from 1972 when she was still in single digits. Surprisingly, she did not go on a Twitter rant and accuse him of lacking “human decency.”

Zuckerberg was careful to note, multiple times, that Graph Search doesn’t reveal any more information about you than is already available on Facebook. It will, however, make that information a lot easier to find.

The problem here, as with all Facebook announcements: You can’t just try these things out for yourself; you have to wait for Facebook to make them available to you. (You can sign up for the waiting list and get a very cursory demo of it here.) So it could be weeks or months before we’re able to find out exactly what benefits Graph Search will bring and where the pitfalls lie.

If nothing else, today’s announcement led me to take a harder look at the more than 400 things I have Liked over the years. I’m not sure what they really say about me. But if you’re searching for people in my corner of the world who like faux black leather couches, Joss Whedon, World Toilet Day, Bruce Campbell, Cork Paranormal Investigators, or Boobquake, I’m your guy.

Got a question about social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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