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Facebook's Graph Search isn't a Google competitor for users, it's for advertisers

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Facebook's Graph Search isn't a Google competitor for users, it's for advertisers
It seems to us that Facebook has a problem with branding. The company has notably been terrible about naming products, often giving products names that no one will want to remember, and the latest in that line is Graph Search. The Graph Search feature that Facebook just announced isn't a Google competitor, it feels more like Facebook misunderstanding its own product, and admitting a failure for users to discover content in Facebook's now very dense UI. We say that Facebook may be misunderstanding Graph Search, because, while it looks like a product that fills a big need in Facebook, it is more a feature repackaging than a new product, and it fails to bring together some Facebook features that haven't gotten the traction they could have.

We know that this piece will come off as critical, but we want to be clear: there looks to be a lot of value in the Graph Search, it just feels like Facebook is packaging it for users in the wrong way. It looks like a product that’s disconnected, misused, incomplete, and far too focused on the idea that your friends have better answers than the crowd-sourced services on the Internet. Your friends may have good recommendations, but Facebook has never really explained why the recommendations of friends should outweigh recommendations from everyone else in the world.

It’s not a Google Search competitor (at least not for users)

Facebook has introduced the feature as something of a Google Search competitor, but the trouble with that idea is two-fold: First, Google isn't even that interested in search anymore. As we've seen with Google Now, and as we've heard both from Google execs, and new hire Ray Kurzweil, Google is more interested in giving you information you want before you ask for it. Google doesn't want to make you search for answers, Google wants to be able to surface those answers for you before you ask. It's an issue of intelligent push and discovery as we move forward, but Facebook is still trying to figure out the game of the past with a search tool. Of course, Bing is integrated to allow for regular web searches, but that's because Bing is a real Google competitor.

Second, a search tool implies that you are going to find answers, but Facebook hasn't really proven that to be a valid proposition on its platform. Sure, you can find music that your friends like, and places that they have visited, but is Facebook the best source for that information? It's all well and good that a couple of my friends liked a certain restaurant, but it feels far more valuable to go to Yelp or Google Places or TripAdvisor, where I can find not just recommendations from my friends, but valuable input from dozens or hundreds of other people. 

In order to find what you want in Graph Search, you'll have to use a ton of modifiers to your search query, like "pizza places in Boston that are liked by food critics", rather than just going to a real search engine or places database and searching for "best pizza in Boston". There is potential to get a lot of good information from Graph Search, but the method of getting to that information feels like a step back from where the search competition is going.

But, that’s the trick: Graph Search isn’t meant to be a competitor to Google Search for users, it’s meant to be a competitor to Google Search for advertisers. Now, even if you don’t Like things, or actively add your interests to Facebook, the company will still be able to gather info on who you are and what you like by what you search for. Maybe that’s why it feels like Facebook hasn’t fully thought out the value users will find in the results of the searches, because it really wants to prove to investors that it can generate more valuable ads.

It should be feature upgrades, not a product

There is definitely value in Graph Search for finding content, and there is value in it for gathering around topics and creating communities, but Facebook seems to just want this branded as a search tool, rather than a product that adds features to various pieces of Facebook's site. The reality is that Graph Search is repackaging feature upgrades as a singular product.

Graph Search to find people who are interested in a certain topic is all well and good, but it's unclear exactly what value users will get out of the answers to those queries. There's no easy way to pull those people into a Facebook Group, which would be the natural next step: once you find the people who should be brought together, it's cumbersome to actually bring them together. Rather than enhancing the Groups experience, which desperately needs a refresh, Facebook is adding a search tool that doesn’t connect to it.

A better example comes from a couple months ago when Facebook changed the nature of the Photos page from a place that would aggregate the recently shared photos of your friends to a place where you could only access your own photos. Now, a big part of the marketing for Graph Search is in how easy it makes it to find photos that your friends have shared. It seems like this Graph Search could have been a really nice upgrade to the old Photos page, if that still existed.

Of course, the real reason why that page has disappeared most likely has to do with Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram. A core feature of Instagram is that users don’t have a feed of photos on the website, so Facebook would have had trouble convincing users that it would be okay to aggregate Instagram photos in that old tab. But, pulling Instagram photos into Graph Search results might not be as hard a sell.

This disconnect between the product and the implementation shows that Facebook is focused more on the data it will generate towards targeted advertising than the value it would add for users. Had it been the other way around, Facebook would likely have left the Photos page that surfaced photos for you to discover, and augmented it with search. Instead, Facebook killed the discovery tool and is now adding a search tool to make up for that lost feature.

The hidden gem

As we said, Graph Search doesn’t look like a completely bad product, it’s just a product that seems to be misunderstood by Facebook itself. Case in point, one of the best features of the Graph Search is the ability to combine the various data points that Facebook has, like location data, jobs, and interests, but Facebook still tries to focus it on your friends. However, somewhat buried in the documentation, it does show that you won’t just search for “sushi restaurants in Seattle that my friends like”, but you could also search for “sushi restaurants in Seattle liked by chefs”.

This kind of search that combines the personal data with interest data is really the heart of Facebook, and where it really finds its strength. This is the kind of thing that Google has been trying to harvest with Google+. The trouble is that where Google is focusing on curators, Facebook still focuses on your friends, but that could also be a hidden bonus for Facebook with this new Graph Search.

Your friends have good information, but Facebook has been trying to move into the Following/Circled realm of Twitter and Google+ by allowing you to subscribe to users. Finding those users will get a lot easier with this new search tool. But, so far, celebrity users on Facebook are more into sharing links and self-promotion, than they are about Liking products, places, music, etc or using check-ins. Facebook has already begun embedding entire Wikipedia entries on the site when you search for celebrities, but what the site really needs to push for native data from those people.


Facebook’s Graph Search is, if nothing else, a very necessary product. Facebook has become too large, and complex, and finding content you want has become a chore. Graph Search should be able to ease that burden, but it is not a Google Search competitor.

With Graph Search, Facebook is (rightly) admitting defeat in the fight to make content on its platform more easily discoverable, and choosing to simply build a better search tool to help you make sense of a messy Facebook world. But, as Facebook is finally accepting the value of old search tools, the supposed competitor, Google, has moved beyond search into the world of intelligent push.

Who knows, Graph Search could be the killer product in disguise, but given Facebook’s recent product releases that faded away as quickly as they were announced (Deals, etc.), we’ll have to wait and see. It just seems like a big missed opportunity for Facebook to release something like this and not use it to help unify the site, and instead leave so many pieces of Facebook feeling disconnected from the whole. Maybe future iterations will focus more on users, because this initial offering looks like it was built with advertisers in mind.

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