19 Feb 2013

How Facebook’s Graph Search Could Beat Google, Yelp in Local Search

By Chris Warden at SocialTimes:

In the days before Facebook announced Graph Search, widespread speculation that we could be in for a huge announcement – such as “The Facebook Phone” – sent investors into a frenzy and drove the price of FB stock to its 52-week high. Once the announcement was made, it seems that investors weren’t nearly as pleased with what Facebook had to offer.

But, par for the course for the Wall Street-types, they were short-sighted on what this announcement means for the future of the internet. Facebook Graph Search has the potential to revolutionize the search industry – particularly local search – in a way that we haven’t seen since Google decided to start ranking sites based on those that were linking to them.

Google’s innovation in the search space helped it grow into one of the biggest companies on the planet. If the same widespread consumer adoption happens with Graph Search, it could leave the investors who dumped Facebook’s stock after the announcement seeing red.

What is it?

At its core, Facebook Graph Search is a recommendation engine that aggregates data from your friends based on their online behavior. Every time someone likes a restaurant, plumber, dentist, or a local bar, it’s “graphed” so that the data can be easily accessed later. What this allows you to do – particularly if you have friends who are active on Facebook – is search this data to find recommendations for nearly anything that you can “like” on Facebook.

Rather than asking your friends to recommend a dentist next time you have a toothache, you can just ask Facebook for “dentists in San Francisco that my friends have been to” or “dentists in San Francisco who are ‘liked’ by my friends.”

Obviously the more active your friends are on Facebook – and the more pages they “like” or places they “check in” to – the more relevant the results.

These simple searches have the power to fundamentally change the way we perform local searches.

Google vs. Facebook and the Future of Local

Local search is currently dominated by search giant Google. Google uses a combination of their very own Google Places pages and reviews by users across multiple review sites such as Yelp and the newly acquired Zagat. These reviews, as well as “citations” from other web pages, local media, etc. factor into the overall rank of a business in local search results.

Now, it’s not a bad system, but it has the potential for being gamed through fake reviews and good local SEO practices.

Facebook hopes to take a different angle and allow your friends to recommend places you might like. The potential for being gamed is lower, as – just like in real life – your friends’ past recommendations help you form an opinion of whether or not to trust future recommendations. If you know Friend A’s recommended places have proven to be awful, then you’ll take their recommendations with a grain of salt when you see them on a Facebook search.

In short, Facebook makes the experience more like calling your friends and asking them yourself.

But it goes even further…

On Google, a typical search query for a local business might look like:

“Italian restaurant in New York City”

Whereas that same search might look like this on Facebook:

“Italian restaurants in New York City that my friends have liked”

Or, if you really want to data dive, how about searches like…

“best boutique dress shops my friends from Vogue Magazine have checked in at”

Are you beginning to see the power behind this type of search? Rather than finding a web page based on link data (among other things), you are simplifying the process by finding exactly what your friends like, which is ultimately what most people care about, anyway. We trust friends. We don’t necessarily trust random strangers on Yelp who recommend burger joints.

“Likes” are the new links.

Potential Problems

Although this has the potential to change the way people search, there are a couple of problems that Facebook will have to find a way to overcome.

1. Facebook will need to change consumer behavior.

The biggest question mark is whether or not consumers will embrace the technology. Changing consumer behavior has long proven to be a huge obstacle to gain widespread adoption of anything. Consumers have been trained to turn to search engines historically, and searching on Facebook is going to require Facebook to find a way to change that behavior.

2. “Likes” aren’t “likes” forever.

We’ve all been to that one place we loved. We’ve raved about it and told everyone we know just how awesome it is. And then we went that one time and it wasn’t awesome. Just like in real life, we’re not going to go back and “unrave” about something on Facebook. Most of us probably aren’t going to go “unlike” the Facebook page, either. People’s tastes change. If they aren’t changing their Facebook pages constantly, then those changes might not be reflected in search.


The idea is brilliant.

While the tech world has taken a sort of ho-hum attitude about Graph Search, whether it receives widespread adoption is ultimately up to the non-tech-savvy people who drive this market. As much as you’d like to think that it’s you and your early adopter friends who determine the fate of a new technology, the harsh reality is that you don’t. Your parents do. The same people who ask you to remove the 48 toolbars that magically installed themselves on their computers are the ones who have to be swayed in order to change the entire market. Can it be done? Well, they turned out in droves to create Facebook accounts, so I’d have to say yes. It can be done.

Remember this: even if Graph Search turns out to be a major flop and it doesn’t revolutionize local search, at least it’s a colossal improvement on Facebook’s existing search features. And that’s always a win.

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