Searching for hidden Facebook desires

Facebook's search engine wants to know more about users than ever before, and it's drawing the lines for a high-stakes advertising showdown with Google.

It’s not what you get out of it that matters, it’s what you put in.

That is the real significance of Facebook’s inelegantly named Graph Search, the new 'social' search engine it unveiled this week. The company that probably already knows more about you than any other single business would now like you to divulge one other, extremely valuable thing: what you want.

A deeper move by Facebook into search has been widely expected for a long time, and no wonder. It is hard to overstate the commercial significance of being able to divine someone’s needs and intentions at the very moment that they are at their strongest. There is nothing that does that quite like the search box.

Google, the unchallenged leader in this kind of divination, sucked up about 48.5 per cent of all global online advertising last year, based on an estimate of the total market by media buying agency ZenithOptimedia. That was even higher than in 2011 and puts Google on track to devour more than half of the entire internet advertising pie this year or next.

With the rise of the mobile phone as the preferred method of internet access, the stakes are only going higher. At least when it comes to smartphones, being able to deliver relevant, timely and usable commercial messages has become the be all and end all. The word "mobile” was conspicuous by its absence as Mark Zuckerberg took the wraps off Graph Search. But that shouldn’t detract from his real intentions. Facebook has taken to calling itself a mobile-first company of late, and a more easily searchable social database is made for this world.

The smartphone has assumed a role that no other technology has achieved before: guide, personal assistant and trusted informant, it is the remote control for a digital life. Remaking Facebook for this new platform is already in full swing. So far, this has involved stripping down the company’s complex PC service into a suite of simplified mobile apps, such as messaging and photo-sharing.

The natural-language aspect of the search service launched this week – type in words and Facebook will try to deduce what you mean and return something useful. Followed to its natural conclusion, the Facebook vision of the future is one in which you can whisper anything into your device and it will find the most relevant answer from a social universe organised around you. Voice-activated, natural-language queries. Sound familiar? Apple’s Siri has delivered an early demonstration of what might be possible, even if the technology is not yet fully ready. If Facebook can crack this problem, there will be no shortage of advertisers lining up to put their money to work.

Unfortunately, this will be easier said than done – and not just because of the considerable technical challenges involved.

The problem is partly the limited range of search requests that Facebook is likely to be good at handling. You may like to post comments about films or restaurants you have enjoyed but not many people discuss their favourite cold remedies or the plumber they have found most reliable. That lack of comprehensiveness is one reason why Google’s place as the "start page of the web” will be very hard to replicate. Another is the value that Facebook can mine from the information at its fingertips. Its private database of social connections – and all the likes and preferences of its users – is still no match for the entirety of the web.

You won’t necessarily like a restaurant simply because one of your friends did: sometimes, the views of thousands of like-minded strangers posting their thoughts on Yelp really can be a better guide. And by giving anyone the chance to "follow” tastemakers and trendsetters, influence can spread every bit as fast on Twitter as on Facebook. Yet, as the social hub, Facebook’s gravitational pull threatens to suck in an increasing amount of this user-generated content. Also, what is left will be increasingly hard for Google to index – as evidenced by its battles with companies such as Yelp and Twitter over tapping into their content.

It was in preparation for just this day, after all, that Google came up with its Google Plus social network.

The battle lines in the new search wars have now been drawn. From Amazon, which handles more product-related searches than any other company, to Apple’s iPhone-based Siri and now Facebook’s social search, the new combatants are starting from their own positions of relative advantage.

The outcome of this battle, as much as the clash of smartphone hardware and operating systems, will determine the shape of the digital future.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013.

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