Social and search: Has Facebook Graph Search learnt from Google+?

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When Google+ launched in June 2011, it looked – for a brief moment – like the boundaries between social and search had finally been breached. Our own tastes, and those of our friends and other like-minded people, could influence what we saw when we searched.

To a certain extent, it worked. +1s, Authorship integration and other features are – to a greater or lesser extent - now part of the Google experience.

But Google+ is still, to a large degree, considered to be the domain of marketers and businesses. Not normal people. Despite assurances from Vic Gundotra at Google that the company’s ‘network thingy’, as he calls it, is doing well, it’s simply not active on the same level as Facebook. It doesn’t seem to be encouraging people to be, well, social.

Looking at the evidence, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to think that when search goes social, people go ‘meh’. So when Facebook announced its Graph Search this month, you could be forgiven for being a little surprised.

Graph Search has many surface similarities with Google+. If you search for pubs on Google’s network thingy, for example, it can show you pubs that your friends like. Or which pubs are liked by those with similar interests to you.

Graph Search can do this too. But it boasts many more possibilities for refinement. For example, you could search for pubs liked by those who like a certain kind of beer. Or you can find out how many people who work at Apple know Microsoft employees. Or see pictures uploaded by friends that like Camembert. That kind of thing.

There are more differences. Google’s social search integration points you towards websites. Facebook Graph Search draws from a database of – for want of a better word – things. If you search for Bill Clinton on Graph Search, you’re not searching for Bill Clinton’s web presence – you’re searching for Facebook’s digital representation of Bill Clinton.

But perhaps the biggest difference is that Facebook already has a huge mass of data to draw from and link together. People like things on Facebook because they want to, and have done for years. Google+, meanwhile, started from square one.

To break it down, Google+ could be considered ‘search going social’, whereas Facebook Graph Search is ‘social going search’. It’s a big difference, and one that could be the deciding element in the success of each endeavour.

It’s clear that Facebook attaches a lot of importance to its new baby, describing it as the ‘third pillar’ alongside News Feed and Timeline. This isn’t, it would seem, a half-hearted tech demo.

But the Google+ launch was full of fanfare too. Has Facebook learnt from the launch of the search giant’s social arm?

Obviously, Facebook HQ will have been watching the development of Google+ with keen eyes. And if it’s learnt anything, it’s to play a different game altogether.

Google’s got a grip on the web – it’s what it does best. Facebook’s playing to its strengths too, and consequently Facebook Graph Search is a whole new kind of search. It’s drawing results from its own domain.

And the fact that this domain – an enormous web of likes, interests, addresses, and a multitude of other factors – is already established gives it a potentially vast advantage. It’s letting users access this data in new ways, rather than attempting to strap social onto an established search engine, like Google has done.

But it’s not all rosy. By setting itself up as something unique, it’s unlikely that Facebook Graph Search will ever replace Google as the search engine of choice – even if it does win out on the social side.

And there’s the problem of likes. Not everybody treats Facebook as a digital facsimile of their personality. Many Facebook users are wary – or simply not interested – in sharing their favourite books, food or films with the world. Facebook Graph Search relies on this data to provide results, so these users will act as missing links in the search chain.

We await the UK launch with baited breath.

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