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Innovating in Google’s shadow: Facebook Graph Search is 2000 and late

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Graeme Lipschitz: Columnist
Graeme Lipschitz is the co-founder of digital innovation agency Wonderland Works where he heads up Social Media, Search and Product Development. He was previously the business development... More

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With the launch of Graph Search, Facebook now allows users to see the people who post stupid quotes as content, and avoid them. Far from groundbreaking and definitely not its greatest innovation, Facebook hasn’t stolen the march on Google+ at all with its new product. In fact, it’s done Google some favours:

Anti-trust and FaceBing: (I refer to it as FaceBing because it sounds a lot like Facepalm) Facebook is using Bing to produce web results associated with what is being searched for. It is also playing into Google’s hands by providing a capable competitor which is great in antitrust law suits.

Copying Google: (who already had their social graph searchable). This shows Google is on the right track. Some of the searches that Facebook can now do, like “friends who now work at X company but worked at Y company” Google+ can already do. Facebook’s new Graph Search is also going to let users see restaurants, for example, in the user’s area that their friends have liked. Google+ can do this too, through +1’s and recently bought restaurant rating site Zagat, to improve on this.

The quality of the social graph: Is the graph full of kittens and cartoons or experts talking candidly about their fields? Analysis suggests that most of the non-personal content on Facebook is of lower quality in terms of expert advice than Google+. However, the engagement on Facebook with regards to comments on photos and likes is a lot higher, so socially inclined results are going to be better.

Facebook is planning to answer your questions about a topic. But Facebook isn’t the place where I come to seek knowledge. Facebook is also ranking the results based on people users care about the most and likes — in my opinion those people are the easiest to contact in the first place, so no big win there either; and likes can be bought — so it’s not as if the results are taint free. Rather, by ranking like this, it should use more public references — like Google+ does with +1’s which can’t be bought.

Graph Search is also supposed to return results to queries like “friends who I work with who also ski” — this is because it can index interests. Google has been working on face and item recognition for ages and launched Goggles in 2010. By this standard, Google could search its social graph for “ex girlfriends in bikinis” or, somewhat conversely, “ex girlfriends with babies” and produce the photos with the right results.

Let’s talk privacy. My favourite scenario on Facebook: girl/guy falls in love with the guy/girl and it has a whirlwind two month romance. Quickly, their status changes to “in a relationship” and they announce the engagement. Then the first baby scan pictures appear and soon after that the wedding happens — with a loose-fitting bridal dress to hide the bump of course. Soon after that the baby arrives. It’s a classic shotgun tale that only has the potential to be highlighted even more by Graph Search and it’s going to lead to a litany of privacy complaints.

It’s a damp squib of an announcement from Facebook. It simply does not have the computational power nor imagination of Google. This announcement serves to show that Facebook is “innovating” in the shadow of Google+ and that, given more time and users, Google+ will prevail.