Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Future of Facebook Graph Search (and Google)

If you do not think Facebook Graph Search is a big deal, you have not been paying attention to the way data, particularly social data, is changing the world. And if you believe Facebook's move is a threat to Google, you may have no idea how true that is, not in terms of today's search advertising market but Google's strategy for the future.

Facebook's big play here is not merely that it may have a search engine that competes with Google's. Yes, this innovation could shake up the search market and allow Facebook to make a bigger dent in Google's revenue in the online and mobile ad space. That may be good news for Facebook investors who, even if Facebook announces great Q4 results in two weeks, will still be holding Facebook stock at a price-earnings ratio that is somewhere between five and fifteen times higher than mature companies such as Google, Apple and eBay.

Instead of thinking about search in the way we do it today--reactive, slow, relatively difficult and often frustrating--flip search on its head. Think of your device knowing you well enough to furnish you with the information you would want when you want it without asking. This is a vision of "serendipitous search" that Google has been hinting at for years.

Now add the Facebook social layer--all the data it knows about you, your friends and strangers. Today, you may pull out your phone and spend five minutes with a Yelp app to find a clothes store; tomorrow your device could proactively let you know you are walking past one of your friends' favorite boutiques. And who do you trust more--strangers who may be compensated for posting trash reviews or your close friends?

Facebook Graph Search as a reactive feature is interesting but turned into a proactive feature, it can change our world. Imagine walking into a bar and knowing a friend is next door. Or entering a salon and finding out your friend loves a particular stylist. Or visiting a Greek restaurant and discovering your Greek friends love a different place around the corner. Or going to a car dealership and being told your friends were left feeling ripped off at this establishment but loved their experience at the dealership up the street. Want to extend your circle of friends? Change a setting and your device can alert you that a friend of a friend is nearby. Playing a tough golf course? One of your friends shared a tip for beating the ninth hole and posted his video birdying the hole! Listening to a song? A bunch of your friends who loved this tune also recommend a band that is new to you! Having a problem with PowerPoint? Searching for the answer is so last year when your device can recognize you are having a problem and inform you not only that your coworker is a PowerPoint guru but that she is online and available now through Facebook chat!

That is the promise of the "social layer," not simply that it populates our news feeds with inspirational Tumblr images but that it becomes data that makes our lives richer, easier and more social. If the term "social layer" rings a bell, it is because that is the phrase Google and others have been using to describe the search giant's own social strategy. And here we see how Facebook's hegemony in social data really brings it into competition with Google--not because a Facebook search engine may be competitive with Google's search engine, but because the company that has access to and uses our and our friends' data and turns it into something that enriches our lives wins and wins big.

And if that is not a sufficient picture of how Facebook and Google are on a collision course, let's take this one step further. In all of those examples I provided of how proactive or serendipitous data might change our lives, think of how this data arrives to you. Today, your phone buzzes or chirps and you need to stop what you are doing, yank out your device, unlock it and look at the screen. If you're driving, this risks lives. If you're walking--look out for that tree! On a first date? Well, that device better stay in your pocket if you want a second date.

Annoying, right? Okay, then put on a pair of Google Glasses--a new way to present information to you without demanding you drop everything, use your hands and shift your field if vision and entire attention. Suddenly the beauty of proactive, real-time information becomes even more evident. No more "third screens" that demand attention; now your real and virtual worlds can become merged seamlessly. Of course, this depends on how well the software and hardware work together and know what information you find useful and what you do not; still, you can begin to see how today's sleek smartphones could look as outdated as a StarTAC flip phone within five years.

Will Facebook be content to let Google own the wearable tech market and allow its hardware to be the conduit for Facebook's features and value proposition? That seems unlikely, and perhaps this is why those rumors of a Facebook phone have never been realized--the brass ring is not that Facebook becomes yet another player in a field crowded with iOS, Android, Blackberry, Windows and soon Tizen and Firefox OS.  Instead, I wonder if Facebook recognizes that its future in furnishing real-time social data depends on finding a way to make that data seamless to users in a way that even today's best smartphones cannot accommodate.

There has been a lot of press in the last two days about what Facebook Graph Search means to Facebook and Google, but I wonder if we are witnessing not another battle for today's eyeballs and ad dollars but the first strategic moves into who owns the way humans merge their virtual and physical worlds in the future.


Cedar Brown said...

Augie, this was quite a thought-provoking article! Only 2 years ago I watched you at Marquette speak on the future of media and oh how things have changed since then.

The idea of what COULD happen is quite profound, but I don't think we'll ever really see the full potential because users will not allow it to happen. How many people actually post tips, check-ins or recommend anything on Facebook? I honestly have no idea. People are very worried about privacy and the stalking capabilities of Facebook just increased. I think you make a million good points about what could happen, but will be interesting to see if people allow for such a thing. For my personal data, I wouldn't be valuable for FB, but am very valuable to Twitter and G+. I agree with your point about Google being ready and already ahead of this, I think they'll be just fine.

Keep it up with the great content!

Augie Ray said...

Thanks, Cedar. You could be right--Facebook has some trust issues that it needs to work out. That said, remember that not too many years ago many people said they wouldn't overshare on Facebook, and look at it today. Behaviors change, and Facebook continues to amass more fans and usage, despite the trust issues.

Also, I'd suggest more people will checkin when there is more value in checking in. As people see the benefit more sharing on Facebook, that will encourage more sharing. (Plus, if people connect their Foursquare, Yelp or other accounts to Facebook, it need not matter that they don't do the actual sharing on Facebook.)

As for how many people are posting tips and checkins, it's tough to say since Facebook isn't that forthcoming, but here is some interesting data from three months ago:

- 19 billion photos have been uploaded onto Facebook (including that sheep photo)
- Since the Facebook “like” was introduced in 2009 (yes, it was only 3 years ago and now it is ubiquitous) we have hit that button 1.13 trillion times
- There have been 140.3 billion friend connections (no mention of how much “unfriending has ocurred)
- 17 billion location-tagged posts, including check-ins

That seems like quite a bit of data, already! Read more at

Thanks for commenting!

Reff said...

Augie, you and I have relatively optimistic views on the future of proactive search...but I imagine there's going to be a lot of "here are 15 Grumpy Cat pictures your friends like" notifications ;-) #facepalm

Augie Ray said...


The cat pictures is EXACTLY why I am so optimistic on proactive search. The concept only works--and people will only adopt it--if the hardware and software knows what you will want to see and avoids the rest. Over time, much like Facebook and EdgeRank (which is crude and has a lot of room for improvement), the things you ignore go away and the information that matters is left.

Now, if you insist on "liking" those cat pictures, then it's your own fault for getting more cat pictures! :)

Professor Dom said...

From an academic perspective I find this and "location based..." Whatever fascinating and incorporate it into all classes I teach.

However your scenario requires a quantum leap in consumer profiling as and tracking. And nothing on the horizon that protects this sensitive data.

Augie Ray said...

Domenick, very good insights. Thanks.

I would suggest that people will increasingly be willing to share more and, at the same time, Facebook and others will find stronger ways to gather data while protecting privacy.

Of the two changes, however, I think the bigger change will not be for tools to protect privacy but for people to willingly give it up. Attitudes are changing--just look at how more teens are now using Tumblr (which has virtually no privacy options) rather than Facebook (which has many.)

I don't just foresee technology changing; I think the world is changing. I wrote a blog post some time ago about how radical transparency will, I believe, become the norm:

Thanks for the dialog!

Unknown said...

I don't know, Augie. You start off w/ an extremely rosy view of FB's future prospects based on Graph Search, that hardly anyone has actually seen in practice yet & that is certainly subject to your stated caveat:
"Of course, this depends on how well the software and hardware work together and know what information you find useful and what you do not..."
Your time period for this seems to be "five years." In tech, that's the equivalent of Keynes' "in the long run we're all dead."
Then you pivot to Google Glass, certainly still unproven but at least in spotted in the wild & in field trials. Seems more like a future prospect swing for GOOG much more than FB.
"The concept only works--and people will only adopt it--if the hardware and software knows what you will want to see and avoids the rest."
I agree wholeheartedly -- and I have to wonder, based on what historical experience you feel confidence that it will be FB's engineers rather than Google's who will crack that nut?

Augie Ray said...

Five years may seem a long time in tech, but it is not at all a long period of time for human behavior to change or for business to get it's head out of its, um, backside. It took five years for the Internet to go from new curiosity to serious mass adoption (and then many companies finally took notice); it took another five years or so to go from Internet as communication medium to Internet as business-changing paradigm (and then many companies finally took notice); it took five years for cell phones to go from "I'll never be like those sorry Crackberry users" to "damn it, I must have the latest smartphone" (and then many companies finally took notice); and it took five years for Facebook to go from something dumb oversharing college students to do to something we all do (companies caught on to this a little quicker, but most still get it wrong.) Five years may be several generations of software, but it's still a heartbeat for the way humans and corporations change.

I want to point out that I didn't predict Facebook would win--just that they'd compete for a world of virtual, proactive, always-on information. So, I am not confident "FB's engineers rather than Google's will crack that nut," but I do see reason to think they may.

First of all, Facebook has succeeded in gaining access to people's lives in a way Google has not, at least not yet. For all the talk of Google's social layer, people still engage actively on Facebook and, at best, passively on G+ if at all. Secondly, you act as if Facebook has no experience mining the social graph to provide a better experience for users, but they have already succeeded (to a point) at doing just that with EdgeRank. EdgeRank is the first baby step toward proactively using machine learning to determine which friends and social information each user wants to see and what they do not.

I just foresee more openness, more proactive information and more social knowledge (rather than just social data or social sharing) in the near future!