Facebook is launching what Mark Zuckerberg refers to as the Third Pillar, after Newsfeed and Timeline: Graph Search. What does this mean for Facebook’s users?

A lot, depending on whether you’re a brand or an individual. And it’s great news if you’re a search engine with anti-trust issues.

While Graph Search should initially make it easier to refine the results of searches involving your network, it’s potential is much, much greater. So it could start off with parameter based searches like “The most popular music artists with Apple employees“. But as it grows and develops greater levels of sophistication (and there’s a lot of data for it to chew through) it could return ever more complex answers to more difficult questions. Ultimately your network’s history, behaviour and connections could become a huge recommendation engine. It would be awesome if you could ask “Where are the best tacos in Durban?” and get a useful answer that amounts to the considered opinion of your collective taco-loving friends.

In the past, of course, you’d stop to think which of your taco-loving friends has similar tastes to you, and you’d shoot a message off to that person, asking for a suggestion. You might still do that, but now you’ll be able to say “Facebook suggested I go to Taco Zulu, what do you reckon?”

It will largely depend on how Facebook determines the merit of one answer over another, which explains why they’re focusing on quantitative search first before tackling subjective queries such as “Who makes the best running shoes?”

In a video (embedded below) introducing Graph Search, there are some really interesting points made:

Subjective results
You and I can ask the exact same question and get completely different answers. Search engines like Google have always been somewhat absolute, in that algorhythm organising the results was more focused on the websites it listed than the person typing the query. That’s been mitigated somewhat by Google+ and factors like personalised search but the net result is generally that if you’re searching for cheap flights, you get the same result everyone else does.

Graph search changes that quite a bit. Assuming the search works as well, in its way, as Google does, it’s likely people will use the two platforms to ratify the others’ results as a double check system.

Asking Facebook what movie to watch or restaurant to visit is a big step, considering the headstarts that so many other recommendation and review sites have on it. Trip Advisor can give you ratings and reviews but it can’t tell you which spa in the Midlands your friends think is the best. Graph Search could fill that gap, provided your friend network is fastidious about updating their profiles with their experiences.

Zuckerberg talks about Facebook becoming a place to find new things like restaurants and activities and makes a point of mentioning how Facebook is typically not viewed as a platform for finding new experiences. While your newsfeed is a great way to keep up with what your social circle is up to, searching out experiences for yourself is not a key use. That could change, but will people take it up? Probably. It might take a while for it to become a de facto benefit seen as part of the experience, but if the service is reliable, the answer to a query “how did you find out about this?” could very well become “I Facebooked it”.

New Friends
Engineering Director Lars Rasmussen makes the point that Graph Search could make it very easy for people to connect their interests with their friends’ friends to make it even easier to find new connections. In the past an intro was linear and happenstance, consisting of a “You like horseriding? My friend Jim does too! I’ll introduce you guys” to a much wider, easier, and quicker way of meeting people with shared interests who come with the built in recommendation of being approved by someone you already know.

The consequences of Graph Search
One outcome, assuming Graph Search fulfils the potential hinted at, is that people will become a lot more conscious of their Facebook activity. Not necessarily that they’ll do less, but perhaps give more consideration to their behaviour because there are now consequences attached to it. No one wants to be responsible for sending a friend to a shitty restaurant or a lame movie. While this may mean an initial decrease in the quantity of activity taking place, it also means what is done carries a lot more value.

Facebook will become more than it already is (again). If you’re using Graph Search to decide which restaurant to eat at, the obvious next step is to make the reservation directly through their fan page. And while you might not want to buy your main course there, you would probably be quite happy to purchase event tickets, or an MP3, or a pair of sunglasses. Which means online vendors could get a taste of what the brick and mortar guys went through when they started to chip away at their business.

Lastly, there’s the possibility of a whole new revenue model for Facebook. Organic results will always be valued (and it’s cool to think that those results are not only earned but different for everyone) there’s no harm in seeing a bought result, provided it’s still relevant. Google’s paid results are clearly demarcated, unobtrusive, add to the user experience and arguably have no impact on the efficacy of their organic solution. Facebook must tread carefully here to ensure they don’t ruin user experience, but if they get it right they could have a massive revenue stream.

It’s unlikely Facebooking will replace Googling, no matter how good it is. Graph Search will probably be an addition rather than a successor  and if the API’s are available, we’ll probably also see some interesting development that tries to amalgamate results into a single coherent answer. The inarguable truth is that people place a huge amount of value on the opinions of their peers. If Facebook is able to effectively channel that in a trustworthy manner, the results from any Graph Search will carry a lot of weight and influence.

That’s a whole lot of if’s, ands & buts. Which of them come through remains to be seen.