Is it a charge for messaging? Is it a phone?.... No, it's "Graph Search". After issuing a mysterious invitation to the media to "Come and see what we're building", Facebook today unveiled the latest upgrade to its service: a super-efficient new search tool, which culls its results from more than 1bn Facebook user accounts. The move will be viewed as a shot across Google's bow, despite Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's insistence to the contrary. Google's web search, he said in a news conference at the firm's California HQ, "is designed to take any open-ended query and give you links that might have answers. Graph Search is designed to take a precise query and give you an answer."
For example, said Zuckerberg, a search for "Who are my friends in San Francisco?" would instantly generate a list of a person's friends in San Francisco. Graph search also makes it simpler to seek out new acquaintances: if a user meets someone at a party, the Facebook founder explained, they can look online for, say, "People named 'Chris' who are friends with X". The results will be collated from all public data on Facebook, but Zuckerberg reassured reporters they would not reveal private information. "Nothing is visible now via search that wasn't visible before," he said.
The news conference was preceded by feverish speculation about Facebook's plans, with many hoping the firm would unveil its first smartphone. The rumours of a hardware announcement had driven up Facebook's shares, with the stock opening on Monday above the $32 mark for the first time since July. Investors had pegged their hopes on a breakthrough that would take the stock back to its initial offer price of $38, a level it has struggled to regain since listing on the stock market last May. But the new search features proved a disappointment, at least in the short-term, with Facebook down more than 1.5 per cent in mid-afternoon trading.
Graph Search is expected to be a customisable recommendation tool to compete with the likes of Yelp and TripAdvisor: users can search for films, restaurants and so on that are liked by their friends or by other Facebook users, including those with specific expertise, such as: "restaurants in San Francisco, California, liked by Culinary Institute of America graduates." It could also be a powerful recruitment tool to rival LinkedIn, allowing employers to look for potential workers with the right background and CV for their companies. Advertisers and brand strategists, meanwhile, can gather market research data with simple searches, such as which television programmes or rival products are liked by their target demographic in a certain city or country.
The new search feature is being rolled out slowly in beta, said Zuckerberg, who was joined at the news conference by Tom Stocky and Lars Rasmussen, senior members of the Graph Search development team and former Google employees. However, Facebook's search function will continue to be partnered not with Google, but with Microsoft's Bing. "If we don't think we can answer your question in Graph Search then we start showing results with Bing," Zuckerberg explained. "We have a great relationship with Bing."