Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Is Facebook Graph Search useful, or a toy?

While I was working on The Letter That Will Hopefully Ship Soon, Mark Zuckerberg and a few friends talked about something called Facebook Graph Search.

So, of course I went to Facebook to find out about it.

That didn't work.

Eventually, I found what I wanted. (Thank you Google News.) And eventually I found what I was looking for on Facebook also - not via Facebook itself, but from people such as Susan Beebe, Mark Krynsky, and Robert Scoble who were sharing stuff on their own. Scoble especially was sharing numerous examples of searches.

I was even able to launch a graph search of my own, even though I'm not part of the beta program yet. (Although I do have an Ingress invite, nyah nyah nyah.) If you go to https://www.facebook.com/about/graphsearch, you can click on the words "Try a Search." Via this amazing facility, I discovered that my wife lives in Ontario, California - the same city in which I live! (Who knew?)

As I mentioned above, Robert Scoble (who does not live in the same city as Alex Scoble) was posting screen shots of various searches. Which of Scoble's friends like particular bands? And there was this one:

Look at all the TV shows liked by various groups.


Presumably he didn't dig down deep enough to see my TV tastes, which are few (sports and the "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" show).

The one search that seemed to be useful was a search of restaurants (or other businesses) liked by your friends. Investors agree - Yelp's stock price tanked 8% after the announcement. The theory is that if you can easily see what your Facebook friends like, why bother to go to Yelp?

But I'm not quite ready to condemn Yelp to the Enron heap, or to sell my Google stock. Yes, search facilities that take Facebook's massive amount of data into account are nice, but there are several cautions.

  • First, Facebook Graph Search is currently in closed beta. I've submitted a request to join the beta via the link I shared above, but it will presumably be some time - weeks, months - before I can even try the beta version. And it will be longer than that before all Facebook users have a non-beta version of Graph Search.
  • Second, you need to remember that Facebook Graph Search won't provide the thoughts of all of your friends. Remember that billions of people, including some of your close friends, are not on Facebook. (If you believe the more rabid Google+ users, Facebook is to them a ghost town. Catch the irony.) Even for those friends on Facebook, some of them may tighten their privacy controls, meaning that you'll never know that your father listens to the Berlin song "Sex."
  • Third, ask yourself this question - how many times are you dying to know which frozen yogurt places are preferred by your friends? Yes, word-of-mouth is much more powerful than paid advertising - shh, don't tell Facebook's advertisers this - but other facilities, such as Yelp, provide much more detailed information on an establishment that can be yielded via a single "Like" (or "+1") button.

For me, the second point is pretty powerful. There are many people who will not join Facebook for whatever reason, and the existence of Graph Search is not necessarily going to drive those people to join (or rejoin) Facebook. Anti-Facebook zealots can be divided into several camps, including the "I value my privacy" camp or the "I don't want to waste my time on the computer" camp. Those people aren't going to show up on anyone's graph - Facebook's, Google's, or the Social Security Administration's.

(Yes, various governmental entities will get into the big data game also. Then things will really get fun.)
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