Is Graph Search Facebook’s Siri? Not So Fast

It was inevitable. Facebook launched their first (feasible) iteration of social search, called Graph Search, last week. The one question that the tech world is speculating about is – does this threaten Google and Bing? The answer is yes, of course.

Google’s search engine was a game changer when it launched back in 1997-98 when most information resided on webpages. Today, a considerable amount of content sits on social networks that may or may not be found in search queries on Google. Online browsers now look for serendipitous discovery of new content, propelling platforms like Instagram and Pinterest into the limelight. Marry this to our reliance on peer and friend feedback and Facebook’s Graph Search seems much better positioned to cater to certain types of searches (“what restaurant shall I eat at tonight?”, “I’d love to go skiing this weekend, wonder which of my friends would like to come with?”)  than Google in the long term. That said, search is not a zero sum game; there is place for both Facebook and Google/Bing although both the size of the pie and the respective market shares are almost certain to change over time. The old order changeth indeed.

How might this evolve in the coming months?

That said, perhaps an even more relevant question is – what will be the immediate impact on sites like Yelp, LinkedIn and Match? Yelp is great for local business recommendations and reviews from other Yelpers whom we don’t know, so our natural inclination is to take the reviews with a grain of salt. Graph Search solves for that. LinkedIn is great for job search and to research someone’s job history; while users are likely to continue using the site for the latter, I can see Facebook users also relying on Graph Search to search their friends’ connections. Then there’s Match…and match-making possibilities with Graph Search are endless. Like Match, Facebook users can now search for other single users with specific interests with a higher likelihood of accuracy. After all, how many times have you heard friends complain about outdated Match profile pictures, white lies about interests and the like?

Next, will users leave Facebook due to privacy (or other) concerns?

Much as it pains me to conclude this, the ship has sailed on this argument. Facebook has given users plenty of opportunity to leave the network, with several big privacy flubs in the past. Privacy concerns for those who are sticklers for privacy will become more pronounced, resulting in attrition, as it probably would have eventually anyway. For those remaining, many are likely to become even more engaged Facebook users.

How will Graph Search change user behavior?

I don’t see Graph searches being particularly helpful for Facebook users with a low friend density. And they probably won’t work terribly well for places where a user doesn’t have friends (“where should I eat in Timbuktu?”). But I do see users with a healthy friend density becoming even more engaged on Facebook by expanding their social graph such as subscribing to more updates, and searching by location more often. The feature will also incentivize users to create quality content such as adding more likes and interests, and checking in more often.

What’s next for Graph Search?

Zuckerberg tells us there is plenty more where Graph Search came from. The most obvious gap right now is that Graph Search works only for English users, although they do constitute roughly 45% of the user base. Equally obviously, the feature doesn’t index Facebook posts and updates, something the team is already working on. Then there is all the data collected by third part apps like Spotify and publisher websites.

But arguably the two most important features currently missing are search across Facebook’s mobile apps and advertising. Mobile could be BIG as it would allow users to search by location in real-time. So if I’m in downtown Manhattan with some time on my hands, I could conceivably search for friends nearby to grab a drink with vs. sending a bunch of blind texts. Then there is the revenue upside inherent in advertising that has Wall Street analysts salivating. Thus far Facebook ads have mostly targeted users based on interests and demographic data – data that is arguably much further along in the purchase decision funnel. With Graph Search, advertisers will have access to 1) more accurate and extensive user data, and 2) users as they are in the process of figuring out what to buy (“where shall I eat?”, “what phone should I buy?”, “where shall I vacation?”) – data that will make the network more attractive to advertisers and perhaps even increase the value of ads.

What it means for Business

What should businesses expect from Graph Search? I suspect we’re seeing the next iteration of brand/product reviews. So now brands will need to concern themselves with not just what reviews customers are posting on their websites, or on Yelp, but also what they’re saying on Facebook more than ever before. Will this lead to more brands investing (and brands investing more) in Facebook and social media?

Given the shift of some searches from Yelp, small businesses should invest more time on their Facebook pages. The discussion about websites becoming less relevant becomes more dominant than ever before, as people naturally begin to spend even more time on the network and rely on it for some everyday questions. Another important implication is that thus far, social networks in general, and Facebook in particular, have played a bigger role in prospect acquisition rather than actual conversions. I suspect that we may potentially begin to see more conversions begin to be sourced through Facebook, although we will almost certainly continue to see more and more new users being acquired through the platform. It will be interesting to see if this ratio of acquisition to actual sales will change, and to what extent, in the coming months. And that means that the debate around last click attribution for (and how it doesn’t apply to) social networks is going to continue to rage for digital marketers.

In the meantime, how about we play safe and read this to ensure we don’t show up in some questionable searches.