Facebook's Graph Search: A tool for marketers disguised as a tool for users

By Erin Griffith , written on January 15, 2013

From The News Desk

Hello, Graph Search. You are Facebook's latest attempt to open up new revenue streams. Welcome to the Facebook income family, which now includes banner ads, in-stream ads, Facebook Gifts, and the quickly-shrinking revenue from Zynga games.

Sure, Zuckerberg said today that the company's new search engine could "potentially be a business over time," but the "good user experience" comes first. But we know better than that. Graph Search is not ultimately, as Facebook would love us to believe today, meant to provide the best possible user experience. This is a long term play for the hearts and wallets of advertisers and investors.

Since it allows users to easily search through their friends', and friends of friends' photos, likes and status updates, privacy antagonists are already crying foul. They're anticipating users will share less and delete demographic information about themselves as a result of the new feature. We know from all privacy outrages that it's more talk than action. But still, why would Facebook welcome yet another privacy backlash just weeks after its Instagram incident? Because this is the first building block in a much bigger revenue strategy.

As a digital advertising company, Facebook wants a piece of the most effective and profitable form of digital advertising. That happens to be search. The head of Google+ has flaunted its access to the search engine as the one advantage Google's much-maligned social network has over other social networks. Facebook's existing ads will never have baked-in intent to buy, no matter how many brands its users offer supportive "thumbs ups" to. As I noted last week, search is the difference between walking into a hardware store and asking for a drill, and walking down a sidewalk trying to avoid the crazy drill salesperson yelling for your attention.

Facebook has not yet built its own search engine for the rest of the non-Facebook web -- Microsoft's Bing still powers the site's non-Graph search. (Talks with Google fell apart, Zuckerberg said.) No, Graph Search is just a way to search through your friends' and friends' friends stuff on Facebook. The company touted the feature's many benefits to users: dating, recruiting, historical photos searches (uh, okay...), or movie recommendations.

Most of these seem made-up and limited in scope. Perhaps it will cut down on the number of crowdsourcing status updates in the line of "Anyone know a good plumber?" Now we can just Graph Search "friends who know plumbers." That, to me, is the only really exciting part of Graph Search. Social, local recommendations is what Foursquare, for example, has gone after with its relaunch focused on recommendations from your friends. It's what Yelp does already, and what Google+ touts as the benefits of Search Plus Your World. But if any site can gain a foothold in the increasingly crowded arena of social media-influenced search results, Facebook can.

Once Facebook teaches us to use it as a utility for local search, we'll begin to use it for non-local searches. Both are interesting for advertisers. Hello, new revenue stream.

[Image courtesy meyerweb]