January 15, 2013

Facebook Announces Graph Search - The New Way to Find 'The' Answer


Today, Facebook held its first major press conference, the kind where they send out media invites, add a touch of mystery and stage a show of sorts. One can imagine Mark Zuckerberg thinking that staging such an event would be a waste of his valuable time and something to avoid at all costs, but everyone grows up and eventually fits into the same world the rest of us live in, even if in Zuckerberg’s case he brings some spare billions of dollars along for the ride.

For a company built on social connections in real time, we want to note here that it was surprising to discover that Facebook did not provide a live stream of the event!

So then, in any case, we finally have the “big” news.

In answer to the $64,000 question, “Is Facebook cool again?” the answer is a resounding not really…

In answer to the $128,000 question, the company announced today a new search service, dubbed Graph Search, that allows existing users to make new information connections as well as possibly new user connections through all of the information available specifically within Facebook and your network of friends. So after much ado, Facebook essentially has added a third incremental “pillar” to its foundation of information services, which up to now have included Newsfeed and Timeline. Now we can add Graph Search.

Most recently, the company detailed its efforts to deliver a better communications platform that ties together chat, e-mail and texting. It also generated the sort of hold your breath excitement some people had for today’s event. And it fell along similar ultimately disappointing lines in terms of “big” news.

This new capability is in line with that service. Facebook has added better internal search -though it is still a work in progress - focused on people, photos, places and interests. Along with the means to ensure user privacy of his or her data and information at all times, as the image below (thank you CNET) demonstrates. Privacy is clearly top of mind for Facebook today – and the company looks to be covering its bases here. It’s a good thing to do since it will keep the conversation on Graph Search rather than having it hijacked by privacy issues.

As Zuckerberg puts it (we’re paraphrasing), “It isn’t about getting links that lead to possible answers, it is about getting the actual answer you are looking for.” That is ambitious, but based on today’s event and what looks to be the current state of Graph Search it isn’t quite as earthshaking as one might think.

What Were We Hoping to Hear?

Our own rambling speculation prior to the event had ranged among the usual suspects but with several twists:

  • Facebook announcing its own smartphone. Zuckerberg did say at one point that this was not a good idea, though HTC had thought it was. Perhaps Zuckerberg was just buying time and offering some misdirection. And would it be a Windows Phone device – keeping Microsoft’s Facebook investment in mind?
  • The idea that Facebook might deliver its own search engine (right, to compete head to head with Google) – would it be Bing-based (let’s not forget Microsoft is an investor), or if search is indeed in the cards might they announce they are acquiring Quora in order to put one billion subscribers to good use? That has been our guess. Zuckerberg did say Facebook is uniquely positioned to answer questions. Well, it’s more a Quora kind of search than a Google search if Zuckerberg means what he says. It turns out this was closest to today’s reality, and we will note that Zuckerberg did note that if a keyword search was needed…there is always Bing to turn to, and that in his view Bing and Graph Search are complementary technologies.
  • The company delivering a formal and complete mobile ad and ad platform strategy. Made sense!
  • Something as mundane as launching a new timeline and Web “facelift” or a suite of mobile apps built for ultimate speed and a crisp UI as native Apple iOS 6 apps. These new apps might have new mobile ad capabilities built in, perhaps with the ability to provide video ad capability, possibly making any new apps less mundane than would otherwise be the case.
  • The silly supposition that Facebook would announce a new corporate wing for its campus. Well, the invitation did say “…see what we’re building.”

Any of the above would have likely been more interesting, probably including announcing the new campus wing, than today’s announcement (ok, we’re kidding about that one).

Something Old, Nothing New

Let’s be totally honest here – our opinion is that Facebook has managed to pull off delivering a service that in most respects clearly needs to be an integral piece of the Facebook equation. There isn’t anything truly new or groundbreaking here. It is a repackaging – or a better packaging – of the way users can dig deeper into the massive pool of content that sits on Facebook – which many users seek to do. Yes, we admit that there is solid technology here in any case.

Several examples of the possibilities for Graph Search that were included in today's event presentation are the ability to use it as a recruiting tool, and as a way to potentially discover new people – people that are likely to be in your network of friends but that you may not have known about – they may be separated from you in degrees. Say for example you are looking or a video editing expert with specific smarts in using Avid’s video editing technology who also has real world experience editing TV shows. With Graph Search if such a person happens to exist within your network of friends’ larger networks that person will pop up.

Searches can also be refined as you go. Perhaps you want to ensure that the person above also went to an Ivy League school. You can track that person down. Such a search is predicated on the underlying an implicit granting of access to people unknown to you simply because it is understood that if you have access to a friend’s page, all of the info that person makes publically available within that user’s network is available to you. That is how Graph Search extends the boundaries while also staying within the parameters of Facebook’s defined privacy enforcement.

Today the search capability is limited to English and will only work through the website. What’s coming tomorrow? See the image below for that (again, thanks to CNET).

Is There any Money in It for Facebook?

We hardly know the answer to that question just yet. No more than we know any more today – as some of us had hoped – about Google’s mobile ad plans. Today, Zuckerberg claims the priority is not money, but in getting the Graph Search user experience right.

About six months ago, when its share price had tumbled to $22 and then down to the vicinity of $17.55 we thought that it represented a perfect buy opportunity. Today, at 11:45 ET just prior to the press event taking place, the stock was at $31.18 and most – if not all - of that increase has been driven by the financial analyst community sensing that Facebook may indeed have a viable mobile ad monetization strategy in hand and that its mobile ad approach has started to click (the mystery event has not driven the stock surge). At the close of today’s event at about 2 pm ET the stock is at $30.39 – no one is suddenly running for the exits to dump the stock.

 There is nothing we find more amusing than the myopic viewpoints of financial analysts, who this time around may easily send the stock soaring instead of diving when Facebook announces its earnings on January 30, 2013.

Graph Search goes into limited beta today on Facebook, and it is worth checking it out. Get yourself on the waiting list now. Several videos are also available to view.

Stay tuned for a detailed update on Graph Search and our thoughts on if any of Facebook’s news today actually makes any deep sense, especially as it relates to Facebook’s ability to make money.

Also see: What to Make of Facebook's Search Announcement by Rich Tehrani.




Edited by Brooke Neuman



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Facebook    Google    Microsoft
Apple    Smartphone    Apps

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