Presenting a potential challenge to Google and review websites like Yelp, Facebook last week launched a limited test of Graph Search, a new search engine that incorporates its mountain of social data around personal relationships and interests.
Facebook users can type in queries in a large search box near the top of their Facebook page, such as "What cupcake stores do my friends like?" The results are said to be more personalized than other web searches because they're based on Facebook users' pictures, 'Likes' and check-ins rather than a generic link to other websites.
"In web search it is very often the case that if you do a search for 'apple' and I do a search for 'apple,' we're basically going to get the same results," said Kari Lee, engineering manager, in a video Facebook released. "Maybe I'll get slightly more technical results based on Apple computers and maybe you'll care about the fruit a little bit more but [the results] are not that different from each other. Whereas on Facebook when you do the same searches we'll get completely different sets of results because of the depth of personalization that we do."
If a user wants a recommendation for a store in a particular city, searches will be displayed based on those that are most popular with their closest Facebook friends. Results similar to the searcher's existing 'Likes' and interests may be ranked higher. Suggestions may also be complemented from Microsoft's Bing search engine, especially if those from the user's social network aren't so rich.
A review on The New York Times likened the difference to how users would probably rate the opinions of their friends on a new restaurant higher than the "advice from a professional food critic or from a stranger on Yelp" that may come from other web searches.
The test faces numerous privacy hurdles and Facebook promised that information access would be controlled. With the average number of Facebook 'Friends' per user slowing recently, the success also depends on the social network's continuing popularity.
But if Graph Search takes off, an analysis by Internet Retailer found that retailers with more active Facebook fan bases would be bound to land in more searches. Optimizing their Facebook presence for search would also become a priority.
Most articles particularly explored the marketing potential of being able link online ads to browsers' interests based on their Facebook network.
"Advertisers are going to be able to better target what you're interested in," Brian Blau, an analyst with Gartner, told The New York Times. "It's a much more meaningful search than keyword search."
Excluding privacy concerns, does Facebook or Google potentially offer a better search tool for consumers?