Facebook comes out swinging with Graph Search

Facebook’s Graph Search will have major implications for the marketing industry, argues Mumbrella’s Cathie McGinn

Facebook has today announced the launch of its search engine, Graph Search. The announcement has disappointed people who were hoping for a Facebook phone launch but has set the world of search nerds buzzing. But this is a significant development, and not just for search professionals.

It’s a big deal for several reasons: it marks an aggressive play against search giant Google; offers what I would argue is a tacit acknowledgement that Facebook’s brand and advertising integration is on a downward spiral; and potentially heralds a shift in online social behaviour to a more discerning and less over-sharing approach.

Graph Search is a search engine that operates within Facebook to serve up results based on what people in your network have done, said and shared. In part it makes it easier to find shared items, similar interests, photographs of you and friend Y together, restaurants in Parramatta your friends like and so on. Searches with more than one variable, in essence. “Those are really hard things to find, right now,” said man-child Zuckerberg in the video accompanying the  announcement.

The real value for brands is that it offers a much clearer return and a conversion funnel than currently exists.

Zuckerberg actually announced the move into search in his speech at September’s TechCrunch Disrupt (the same speech in which he denied that a Facebook phone was on the cards, fact-fans).

Australian users can expect to see it launch here a few weeks after the US launch. The staggered release and deliberately slow roll-out is a strong indication that Zuckerberg and co know this is a serious, make-or-break play.

Anecdotally, I have heard that the business of managing brand engagement on Facebook has been becoming ever more fraught, particularly with issues like the algorithm shift a few months back that dropped the reach of posts overnight without prior warning. Tricky for agencies who have sold in a carefully planned content strategy to clients, only to have to return and ask for a paid advertising top-up to guarantee reach; trickier for marketing bosses trying to demonstrate conversion and a return on investment.

Add that to the continual interruption and irritation users are reporting from the proliferation of sponsored stories (Your friend liked Brand X six months ago and now Brand X’s largely irrelevant ads are cluttering up your stream) and of course the more pressing issue, from Facebook’s revenue perspective, that mobile advertising is a nut they have yet to crack, and it’s clear that the current model is not working, costing brands credibility and budget, and alienating users.

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The social analytics firm SocialBakers reports that several of Facebook’s key markets -the US and UK amongst them – shed users over the Christmas holiday period: a strong indication that users are becoming weary of an experience disrupted by increasingly desperate and trivial advertising messages (LIKE IF YOU LIKE LIKING THINGS ON FACEBOOK!).

Another motivation is the need to start recouping the billion dollar investment in Instagram, which is currently only searchable within the Instagram platform: the tags or labels assigned to images do not yet integrate with Facebook.

In any case, the brains at the social network know that there are a finite number of users – colossal though that number may be. Growth needs to come through other means. SocialBakers reports that almost 70% of Australia’s online population uses the platform already. So with that in mind, this move couldn’t have come soon enough. And search is still where advertising budgets reside, in digital spend terms.

Midu Chandra, social media director at Reprise Media says: “It certainly provides another way for marketers to quantify the impact an investment in Facebook has on their brand. For example people looking for a car may use the Human Search to ask “What cars do my friends recommend?” This starts giving a more tangible value to things like “likes, comments & shares” and moves Facebook down the angle of being able to be quantified in terms of brand, sales and maybe even customer service. Overall I think this drives more reach for Facebook as search is a really large component of where consumers start their journey online. Search is gathering a very large investment from most brands these days due to where it fits in the path to purchase and Facebook is now going to try to capitalise on this.”

Lucio Ribero, from social media agency the Online Circle, agrees: “Searches on Facebook’s Graph Search will allow for them to present ads and will generate revenue. Conversely, if people are searching on Graph Search instead of Google it will have a direct negative impact on the number of Google AdWords ads presented and clicked upon and so will impact Google’s AdWords revenue”.

The other motivation is the need to fight back against stealthy creep of Google Plus. There is a great degree of cynicism about the lack of success of the social network, which I think is misplaced. While certainly the user base has not grown astronomically, I’d suggest that what the search giant has done by interlinking your personal profile, relationship data, media consumption and search history is a hugely complex data mapping, cross referencing and influence-tracking project that offers effective peer-driven search.

By taking each individual’s data about almost everything, Google is building incredibly sophisticated profiles and search results which are hyper-personalised with historical and cross-media depth.

Facebook’s only hope is to keep you on its platform by offering you a peer to peer search engine that will hopefully be effective and intuitive enough not to lose you to the wider world. Facebook’s mission statement is “to make the world more open and connected” but in fact it can only offer you what has previously been added by others: it’s by nature somewhat closed.

Being on Facebook, in search terms, is like hanging out on a university campus. Perhaps that reflects the environment the platform was conceived in: you have lots of existing friends you can’t shake, and while the potential to meet their friends and discover new interests is there, you can’t help wondering what would happen if you stepped out into the almost limitless wider world. Less reliable, certainly, and you might not get exactly what you wanted on the first go, but there’s always the chance you might find something even better. As Jagger said, you can’t always get what you want but if you try sometimes, you might just find you get what you need.

There will, of course be a cacophony of complaint from users, particularly as the new product will reveal information that the unwary user had imagined to be private.

But what makes this a potentially great move is that it may induce consumers to be more discerning about the things they like, share and check-in to. Knowing your friends will view a like of such-and such brand as a genuine endorsement – and criticise you for poor experiences they have after taking your word for it – might create a feedback loop which means only quality experiences and genuine brand advocacy survive. It may add more pressure on brands to give excellent service to customers to succeed on Facebook. “Like if you like Fridays” isn’t going to cut it any longer – but that’s a triumph for authenticity.

I for one won’t be checking in to late night karaoke venues any longer.

Cathie McGinn


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