First Impressions of Facebook’s New Graph Search

Photograph by Noah Berger/Bloomberg

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg introduces Graph Search at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California.

If you follow directions, Facebook’s new search engine is pretty amazing. But veer off course, and the results reveal just how limited the tool is right now.

During an event today at its headquarters in Menlo Park, California, Facebook introduced Graph Search, a drastically revamped version of the social  network’s search function. Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg called this feature as important to the site as the News Feed on the homepage and the Timeline profiles. It’s also the most nascent.

The promise of social search is compelling. For example, I might be more interested in movies my friends enjoy rather than whatever gets the highest ratings from critics on Rotten Tomatoes.

A tiny slice of Facebook’s 1 billion users were provided with a beta version of Graph Search today. For the past few hours, I’ve been testing the tool on my profile, sifting through my groups of friends.

When first clicking on the search box, which now takes up most of the blue toolbar on the top of the website, I’m presented with a personalized tour of the new search features. It starts by showing me how I can search for people who went to the University of Maryland (my alma mater). Then it shows my unique results and a bunch of familiar faces.

From then on, the search box presents six sample queries whenever I activate it, such as “my friends,” “music my friends like” and “restaurants nearby.” I can choose any of those, click to see more suggestions or enter my own search terms. Once on the results page, a list of optional filters guides me on how to further refine my search.

The search engine currently handles four main categories: people, photos, places and interests. There are lots of options within those groups. For example, I can find friends who like Coldplay (so that I can unfriend them), or I can look up pictures taken before 1990 or at the Empire State Building. I can also find movies my friends like or search by genres such as rock music, comedy films and Italian restaurants.

The results are surprising because there was previously no good way to unlock Facebook’s trove of data about my contacts. However, the system is a little slow. First, the natural-language processing needs to figure out what framework my query fits into, and then display that beneath the search box. Then it needs to dig through all of my data. Multiply that by a billion. To be fair, those are challenging tasks. “We have years and years of work ahead of us,” Zuckerberg said at the event today.

Facebook’s search engine, as in previous versions, can pull in Web results from Microsoft’s Bing. The pages look a little different from those you might see on, and they include additional data that Facebook sprinkles on top, said Lars Rasmussen, a former Google executive who is a director of engineering on Facebook’s search project.

But if you were hoping to use this as your one-stop search shop, look elsewhere. The method for doing a Web search on Facebook is fairly cumbersome. If I type “weather,” the system suggests I check out the Facebook pages for the Weather Channel or Weather Underground, or people whose last names have the word “weather” in them. I need to click “See more” in the auto-complete list, and then scroll down before even getting the option to do a traditional search.

For Facebook, building its own Web-crawling technology is “nowhere” on the company’s list of priorities, Rasmussen said in an interview after the presentation today. This effort is about tapping into all the information Facebook has locked away on its servers.

In addition to making the whole process snappier, Facebook plans to add more languages, open it up to applications from outside developers and bring in more types of data. Facebook’s own events and messages apps aren’t integrated yet. A search for “parties next week” returns a suggestion for “people who party.” (The people on this list aren’t as cool as you might expect, judging by their profile pictures.)

“We need to start getting data on how people use it in order to improve the product,” Zuckerberg said. But that won’t be a quick process. “We’re going to start rolling it out very slowly,” he said.

During the news conference, Facebook executives emphasized their attention to privacy. Before the search feature is rolled out widely, users will be prompted to review their settings on what content is shown publicly, they said.

Facebook’s search engine is an impressive first effort, but like other recent entrants, it has a long way to go before you can expect to rely on it. Just ask Siri. If she’ll understand you, that is.


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