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Why is Facebook Graph Search important?

Facebook's Graph Search, beyond its immediate appeal to Facebook users, may be to take enterprise search to the next level

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Last week Facebook announced a new feature called Graph Search to help people navigate through the wealth of information available to them in Facebook.  Facebook calls Graph Search the third "pillar" around how they expect people to interact with Facebook.  

The first pillar is each person's "timeline" where they can see what is related to them in a temporal view, while the second pillar is a person's "newsfeed", that keeps people up to date on what their friends are saying and doing.  Graph Search introduces a new mechanism where Facebook users can navigate through their Facebook connections to find out what they want when they want.

Facebook has great content with over a billion users, billions of photos, multiple billions of connections, attributes, posts, comments, likes, etc.  What it didn't have until now was a way for people to explore and use all of that information in a really meaningful way.  Graph Search provides the search technology to do this. 

This opens up a wide range of options to Facebook in the future, ranging from monetization to developing complete new product lines. Using the connections made by Facebook's "Like", people will now be able to find products and services that their friends or friends of friends have liked. In the future, people will be able to search through posts and comments as well.  You don't have to go far to see that this is a direct threat to services like Yelp and Angie's List and could be a long term threat to services liked LinkedIn and potentially even Google.

Early reviews of Facebook's Graph Search from its limited set of beta testers ranges from "a wonderful addition to Facebook" to "creepy" and "takes cyber stalking to a whole new level".  Many people are concerned about Facebook respecting their privacy and surfacing personal information that may well be public, but would prefer to remain (relatively) hidden.

Google has been making inroads in this same area with Google+, but doesn't have the amount of content and users that Facebook has.  Facebook did announce that when people want to extend their searches beyond Facebook, Microsoft Bing will be used to do that.  Facebook is also leaving open the possibility that they might make this available via an API, which would be useful for a web search system like Bing or Google to interact with.

One of the biggest questions around Graph Search is how Facebook intends to monetize the capability.  As it stands today, this feature is not going to increase Facebook's revenue.  However, stronger revenue growth is what Facebook needs to justify its high valuation.  

Is this just the first step to a full-fledged Web search offering where Facebook will use Microsoft's Bing search engine and then turbo-charge it with personalized results and connections? Will Microsoft license Graph Search from Facebook and include personalized results in Web searches from Bing, or potentially from within SharePoint 2013?  Both of these are possibilities and both could potentially boost Facebook's revenue substantially.

In addition to the consumer aspects, Facebook Graph Search is also going to have an effect on the enterprise and IT in general.  In much the same way that Google Search has impacted and raised the bar for enterprise search, Facebook's Graph Search is going to raise the bar for enterprise social and semantic search.  

Microsoft has introduced social search within SharePoint 2013, where users can get search recommendations around documents, sites or people that they "follow" (similar to Facebook's "like").  All of the underpinnings for Microsoft to duplicate key aspects of Facebook's Graph Search are embedded into the SharePoint data structures waiting to be turned on in SharePoint 2013.  

My guess is that it won't take Microsoft long to enable this functionality if Facebook's Graph Search turns out to be popular and SharePoint customer start requesting these features.  Once Microsoft offers this capability to its enterprise users, how long will it be before other enterprise social vendors feel required to give their users similar functionality?

So the biggest impact to Facebook's Graph Search, beyond its immediate appeal to Facebook users, may be to take enterprise search to the next level, incorporating semantic search and including enterprise social capabilities.

Posted by Dave Schubmehl, Research Director, IDC
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