Wednesday, 16 January 2013 06:26

Facebook searches for the way forward

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Facebook has announced Graph Search, a “social search engine” that it hopes will rival Google.

Early this morning, Australian time, Facebook announced the addition of sophisticated search capabilities to its popular social networking site. The new functionality is called Graph Search. The natural language search function will allow Facebook users to search the site for friends and their friends’ interests.

That’s bigger than it sounds at first bite. Examples founder Mark Zuckerberg gave at the announcement at the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters included things like searches for “photos my fiends took in Paris”, or “movies my friends like.” Or how about “TV shows liked by doctors”? Here’s a good one, used by Zuckerberg in his presentation – “Music like by people who like Mitt Romney.” Scary.

You start to get the picture. And an idea the revenue potential. Like Google, Facebook has – controversially – become very good at ‘monetising’ its enormous user base. Now that we know a bit more about how they web works, and how clever people can make it work harder, we can begin to grasp the potential consequences of Facebook’s announcement. It is huge. Imagine tying in some of these search results with advertising.

And in a coup for Microsoft and as a harbinger of its future cooperation with Facebook, Graph Search will also return results from Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, which has been struggling to make inroads against Google.

Zuckerberg needed to do something big. The company has disappointed since its May 2012 IPO (initial public offering), which initially valued the company at just over US$100 billion. Last week Zuckerberg sent out a cryptic invitation to the media last week that said simply “come and see what we’re building.”

Apple and Google have used similar stratagems in the past – the secrecy helps build publicity and suspense. It worked. Facebook’s share price, which hit a low of US$18 last September, has climbed above $30 this year, largely on speculation of this announcement. But it is still well short of the $38 IPO figure. During the announcement the share price actually declined slightly, but expect it to rise as the consequences of the announcement sink in.

A “limited beta rollout” of Graph Search begins immediately. Zuckerberg calls the information in Facebook a “living database” and says that the new search engine will be able to do things that Google can’t. But an hour into his presentation, Zuckerberg says “he would love to work with Google”. And in his closing comments he said that “one day” Instagram would be included.

It’s hard to believe Facebook is less than ten years old – and Google just a few years older. How these two companies have transformed the IT industry – nay, the world – in the last decade. Their march seems relentless. Search has been hailed as a new paradigm, an entirely new way of thinking about and using information, and also as the spawn of the devil, taking away our privacy and our individuality.

Since mankind first used fire, technology has been used for evil as well as good. But one thing – it cannot be halted or even effectively slowed by legislative or regulatory means. Search, and its increasing sophistication and invasiveness, is a fact of life. Now that we see it, Graph Search seems logical. But where does it all end?

Is the whole world becoming one big search engine?

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Graeme Philipson

Graeme Philipson is senior associate editor at iTWire and editor of sister publication CommsWire. He is also founder and Research Director of Connection Research, a market research and analysis firm specialising in the convergence of sustainable, digital and environmental technologies. He has been in the high tech industry for more than 30 years, most of that time as a market researcher, analyst and journalist. He was founding editor of MIS magazine, and is a former editor of Computerworld Australia. He was a research director for Gartner Asia Pacific and research manager for the Yankee Group Australia. He was a long time IT columnist in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and is a recipient of the Kester Award for lifetime achievement in IT journalism.

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