Facebook Graph Search: first impressions
16th Jan 2013 | 14:21
Good for you, better for Facebook
Introduction, interface and app search
Facebook launched a new search thing yesterday. It wasn't a Facebook phone. It wasn't a mobile OS. It was a search thing called Graph Search. What does that even mean, Graph Search? No one calls their Facebook stuff Graph except for people who work at Facebook.
Basically, it's a revamped search tool that lets you find the friendly needle in your social media haystack by looking through all Facebook content that's been shared with you or is public - that includes friends, friends' interests, photos, games, apps and so on.
Terrible name and the fact that it is still basically just search aside, we thought we'd better see what was what. So we've had a good old go on Facebook Graph Search because, well, any excuse to nose through our friends' stuff. Is it a killer Facebook feature? Are you going to wonder how you ever lived without it? Let's find out.
When Graph Search rolls out to your account, the search bar at the top of your news feed becomes a solid blue box inviting you to search for "people, places and things". If you take that literally and search for "people, places and things", Graph Search doesn't just call you facetious and kick you out of your account (though we deserved it). Instead, it offers some suggestions:
Like, did you mean "People who like places and my favourite things"? Sure, Facebook. What have you got for me? Well, more than 1,000 people as it turns out, starting with people I'm friends with (nine results) and going on to those I share mutual friends with and then diving into the never-ending pool of people I don't have any connection with.
The drop-down suggestion box is equal parts useful and garment-rendingly frustrating. It's constantly zipping about trying to guess what you're going to ask, and comes up with suggestions that are so completely irrelevant that it annoys me just to see them.
Sometimes it's bang on though, and saves you valuable typing seconds. It's a beta service so you can forgive these little irritations to a point.
Searching is pretty straightforward - you can go into as little or as much detail as you like. You can go with "My friends who like Home Alone" all the way through to "Photos of friends of friends who like Home Alone taken in Spain in 2009".
In the current iteration of Facebook Graph Search you can't search negatives - so we couldn't find "my friends who like TechRadar and don't work at Future Publishing" or "My friends who don't like bears" (so we could de-friend them).
Apps and places
As well as picking through friends' photos, you can search for restaurants within certain parameters (e.g. Restaurants nearby, which plays quite fast and loose with the definition of nearby) and see which outlets your friends Like to get an idea of whether they're worth a visit.
Facebook also wants you to use Graph Search to find new games and apps to use on the social network. This is good for Facebook because you'll probably spend more time on the site, not to mention possibly making a few in-app purchases here and there, and recommending the games to your friends, and so on until we're all on Facebook all the time, giving Zuckerberg all our money.
Searching for "Games my friends play" gives you a good starting point, then you can dig down into the hundreds of results using the "Refine this search" filters on the right - things like game type, who likes the game and which of your friends use the game.
Privacy concerns, data harvest and early verdict
Since we imagine that Graph Search has your stalker sense tingling, we'll go back to the photo search now. Occasionally Graph Search suggestions threw up things like "photos of my friends and 'Bob Hoxtington'", where Bob Hoxtington (who I just made up) isn't a friend of mine. But that's OK because obviously those photos have been set to share with friends of friends.
But it is kind of weird that I can pull up hundreds of photos of someone who, as far as Facebook knows, I don't know. I can just search for photos of Bob Hoxtington and all the photos of him that I have access to are displayed in one mammoth grid. Where does this leave your privacy on Facebook?
I could then print them out and start some kind of insane shrine which, if the photos are location-tagged, I could plot on a map. I mean, if I was that kind of person. I'm not. No, I'm really not. They pay me to come up with this stuff.
You might be fine with your friends' friends seeing photos of you as they flick through an album, but to be able to pull them all up and see them laid out on one page? That's quite a different story. The only way around it is to update your privacy settings so that photos of you (or the tags that say they're you, at least) won't appear tagged to people you don't know.
Lack of options
As far as we can see, there's no option to stop your results showing up in Graph Search to people you don't know beyond shutting down the privacy thing altogether. We'd also like to see Facebook bring in the option to view Graph Search results as someone else (as you can with your profile). It's not quite clear at the moment what bits and pieces will pop up if someone you don't know searches for you.
The other thing that the appearance obsessed will be unhappy about is that there's no way to control the order in which photos of you come up. Searching for photos of Kate Solomon brought up some of my all-time least favourite pictures of me ever, ones that hadn't had any likes or comments and weren't even recent. Why were they so high up in the Graph Search results? Why couldn't I click a button to demote or remove them?
Facebook's relentless protestations that privacy is paramount and it's new drive to push you to update your privacy settings make it clear that it's aware of the possible complaints about Graph Search. Obviously it's not letting people see content that they weren't already allowed to - it's just that the line between what they're allowed and not allowed to see has become a lot more blurred.
The social network also wants you to use Graph Search to make "new connections". We're not sure if that's something that will - or should - take off. While it'll be handy for tracking down people you met at a party (friends with Tina lives in London went to University of Glamorgan), to browse friends of friends for potential new mates then contact them out of the blue is… well… a bit icky.
Still, we can see some handy uses for Graph Search beyond finding a new place to eat or working towards a restraining order. It's now super easy to find out which of your friends like a specific thing. So searching for "Friends who like The National" will show you your friends who like The National. In my case, four of them.
Here's the main problem with Graph Search from this perspective: I know for a fact that more than four of my friends like The National. I know that of those friends, more than one of them also likes Real Estate, but Graph Search only pulls up one result for friends who like The National and Real Estate.
I know plenty about my friends beyond what Facebook knows. But if I was going by Facebook alone and looking for a gig buddy, well… I'd have a one in five chance of going alone.
Facebook is obviously hoping that everyone will just like more and more things, and that's when Graph Search will become useful beyond finding restaurants and stalking friends of friends you may or may not want to exchange bodily fluids with. That might be useful to you as a Facebook user occasionally, but it'll be more useful to Facebook, which wants to use all the data it can glean from you to sell more ads and make more cash.
If you want to search for something that isn't in the Facebook Graph, Graph Search offers you results from Bing.
That's a neat way to keep people on the page, but we can't see it replacing Google for generic searches (bears in hats) any time soon.
Very early verdict
If you're a fan of categorising your friends into specific groups, perhaps arranging some kind of Venn diagram to show overlapping interests and then dividing them into ruthless hierarchies, you're going to love Facebook Graph Search.
If you're a fanatical Facebook stalker of people you vaguely know, you're going to really love Facebook Graph Search.
If you're just a regular Facebook user… we're not sure how much use it's going to get beyond the occasional search for something specific when all else (Google) fails. It's an impressive search function, that's for sure - but at the moment, from a user's point of view, it seems like search for search's sake.