Facebook held a press conference today to unveil/launch its first new major product since its initial public offering last May. The big reveal: a friend-centric Facebook search engine.
Apparently Facebook has decided that you no longer want search results that are relevant to the entirety of humanity, just results relevant to yourself and your social group. Hence their new feature Graph Search. In other words, it’s an improved search function, where the “improved” is arguable at best.
The basic idea is that if you search, say, “Archer”, you will get results informing you, in the words of your friends, how incredibly awesome Archer is, instead of the Internet telling you how incredibly awesome Archer is. In other words, the idea is that your friends color your search, because we all know how precisely we are like our friends in every single respect.
The good news is that this means that any data you upload to Facebook will be “privacy aware”, meaning you can decide whether or not it pops up in search results that your friends enter in. You can only search content your friends choose to share with you, although we’re going to guess that with a company that has such a sterling privacy record as Facebook’s means that this data will also be searchable by any corporation willing to pay for it.
Technically speaking, it’s fairly impressive, designed to take natural search queries fairly effectively, even if this does make it feel a bit like Ask Jeeves. Type in “What movies do my friends like?” and you’d get a weighted list. If you can’t remember somebody’s name, typing it “That guy who lives in New York City and likes Creed and The King of Queens and is named Melvin” will give you more targeted results than just “Melvin”.
That said, as excited as some are for this, it’s hard to see it challenging anybody in the search industry, especially Google. For one thing, this will not replace the search bar at the top of your Facebook page: The old, crappy search bar will still be with us.
Furthermore, the idea of polling your friends for recommendations is not exactly a new one; Foursquare has been building something like this for a while, where it tracks what your friends have to say about places they check-in. It’s a useful idea, but it’s also a deliberately limited data set. If your friends don’t check in, or don’t weigh in on every single topic on Facebook, then you’re screwed.
Building on that, though, we’re not sure why Facebook thinks we want our friends’ opinions on absolutely everything. If you’re trying to understand what’s going on in Washington, why would you search Facebook when Google will likely have the same links, with far less tiresome political ranting? Why would you weight the opinions of that guy you met at a party two years ago and haven’t really spoken to since more highly on movies than somebody actually paid to think about them?
Don’t get us wrong, Facebook getting a substantial overhaul on search is great news. We can see it being a useful tool for some things, it looks good, and it’ll make the site more interesting and convenient. But it’s nothing close to a “big announcement”, unless you count “We’re going to get our ass kicked by Google, just like everybody else who has picked this fight” as an announcement. Which we guess it is, but it’s not exactly what they were going for.