Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg ended reams of speculation this week and announced a new product called Graph Search.
Essentially, the new product is a fully-integrated semantic search engine for the Social Graph, allowing Facebook users to search their own personal interweb, rather than the World Wide Web.
It's the logical next step of Facebook-as-world-database, cataloguing the connections between people and their interests around the world.
Users can search for interesting connections between people, places, interests and photos using information that they can already freely see on Facebook. For example, developer Tom Stocky says that this will be "great for dating," allowing users to search for friends of friends or other connections that are single and meet other criteria: city of birth, interests, etc.
There are an infinite number of other potential use-cases, where Facebook users can search semantically to discover random connections of interest.
Another example used in the press event are recruiters, who could search for "product manager, New York City" and receive a listing back of people who qualify.
This puts Facebook in competition with LinkedIn, and is most certainly going to be leveraging in many interesting ways.
Discovering these deep connections is most certainly going to provide value to both users and businesses using Facebook.
In the travel space, users can easily find: travel partners for upcoming trips, travel advice for future trips, friends who have traveled recently, friends who work in the travel sphere, friends of friends who are ex-pats and able to provide advice. The list of long, and it will allow travelers to more fully grasp the way that their connections play out across the globe.
Other interests that can be searched range from movies to books to music - any interest users have publicly available to their contacts can be searched and acted upon.
Why search for restaurants on Google while traveling when you can see where your friends or other random connections have gone in a particular city? This product is in direct competition with Google, and leverages Facebook's extremely deep web of connections between 1 billion people.
This should most definitely make Google nervous, because if the product is well-executed by Facebook, it could easily siphon people off of Google.com. Users already spend the majority of their Internet time on Facebook, so once they can also find information on things to do around the world, jobs to be had, or any other connection-rich information that exists on Facebook.
Another killer feature for the travel space is the photo search feature. The example used in the press event is for "photos of the Berlin Wall before 1990," pointing to a much more robust image search functionality that just might put Google on the defensive. After all, Facebook's users have posted over 240 billion photos!
Brands on Facebook are really going to enjoy this added search functionality, especially as Facebook is likely to make this part of the Facebook Connect experience.
Imagine a DMO gaining access to all uploaded photos in their particular market - this could be a game-changing development, and one that could allow brands to encourage more connections between visitors to their destination. This sort of search access could also be something Facebook could charge for.
Of course, Google has been cataloguing photos for ages - the question here will be how Facebook's UX will differ. Another point in Facebook's column could be added given the possibility of gaining permission to use friend's photos.
Legally, one cannot just grab a photo from Google Image Search and use it at will. By limiting photos to those of friends, users could more seamlessly find photos to use with permission from the copyright owner.
One huge disadvantage is that Instagram will not be included in the beta version of Graph Search. For many users - this writer included - Instagram has become the go-to network that seeds pretty much 100% of the content on their Facebook page. This omission should be rectified quickly to continue ensuring a useful integration with the company Facebook bought for over $700 million last year.
Revenue potential, mobile experience and competition
The other potential use of this new tool for travel brands is one that promises to make Facebook more money: search ads. Facebook has finally created a place for users to demonstrate intent, which can then be sold to brands looking to advertise their products to users. The compelling aspect here is that the search will be semantic and people-based, forcing marketers to be creative in ways that they target their advertisements to each cohort.
Another area of interest for travel brands, especially locally-based businesses, will be how this search product will be integrated into the mobile experience. If I am visiting a city for the first time, will I be able to search "friends of friends that have checked in nearby me?"
The answer is likely yes, and will certainly impact the way that investors price Facebook's stock given the incredible mobile usage statistics coming from the company.
Zuckerberg has said that the desktop experience will be the priority, with Mobile Graph Search coming up sometime in the future. While this is initially very disappointing, the mobile integration is most certainly still the holy grail for the company's revenue growth.
People are using their smartphones as the center of their digital lives, and Facebook will need to hurry up to compete with Apple Maps, Google Places, Yelp and others who thrive on their users' dependence on their phones as location-specific search devices.
In fact, Yelp stock is already dropping at this news, down over 6% at the time of this writing. Yelp's mobile experience is nowhere near as pervasive as Facebook's, and they will most certainly be watching this new development closely.
Besides Yelp and Google, some other companies potentially impacted by the Graph Search product: Match.com (and other dating sites), LinkedIn, and AngiesList (finding friend-recommended services).
Google vs Microssoft
Facebook also continues to work more closely with Microsoft, announcing that their partnership with Bing will be even more closely integrated. For example, when there are no results from Graph Search, appropriate results from Bing will be shown.
When asked why the partnership was not developed with Google, Zuckerberg responded:
"I would love to work with Google...[if they] honour the privacy of Facebook users...and so far we have not be able to work that out.
Users will only be able to search information that has been shared with them publicly, or via their networks - nothing is visible here that wasn't visible before. This is an essential component of the announcement, as nothing is really changing as it relates to privacy - this is simply a completely new way to search, explore and discover connections within currently existing networks.
"Any time we roll out a new way to get information, people ask which pieces of content will people be able to see."
Facebook will also be rolling out "encouragement" on their homepage, gently reminding users to review their privacy settings and allow users to "bulk un-tag." The company seems to be taking privacy concerns more seriously - it remains to be seen how they will continue to make the actual process of managing Privacy Settings easier and more straightforward.
Graph Search rolls out in limited Beta today, and will be rolled out site-wide "slowly," according to Zuckerberg.
What's your take on the latest product from Facebook, Graph Search?