Ever since going public, Facebook has been faced with two big challenges. It needs to somehow grow a user base that already exceeds a billion people. And it needs to find a better way to make money from them.
Facebook’s latest big announcement, Graph Search, caters to the second need—monetization. Mark Zuckerberg’s social network is taking a page out of Google’s playbook, but, unlike, say, Bing, it’s doing so without facing the search giant head-on. Graph Search will turn up results based on your Facebook friends, meaning the findings won’t be nearly as comprehensive or precise as Google’s—instead, they’ll be far more personal.
According to tech analyst Carmi Levy, it’s “a play by Facebook to amass even more data on its billion-plus users. Data drives advertising, which drives revenue.”
Indeed, data-driven advertising is the success story behind Google, but Facebook hasn’t fared as well in the field. Social advertising has not proven to be as viable as search-based advertising. After all, who better to serve an ad to than the guy searching for what you’re selling? And that’s what this is all about: Facebook wants a piece of the more profitable pie, search.
But what Graph Search won’t do is win over any holdouts, Levy says, particularly those with privacy concerns. “If you were skittish about Facebook before, this is going to make you even more skittish.” The fears may or may not be justified, he adds, but perception is what matters. And if Graph Search does what it’s supposed to, people will be digging up even more details about you than before—like stuff you posted years ago.
Therein lies the big problem. Privacy isn’t just about locking things up. Some things stay hidden in the past, things even we forget we said. That became apparent in September when Facebook rolled out its new Timeline layout. “There was this big backlash because people thought their posts were old messages,” explains Mario Zelaya, managing director at Majestic Media, a Facebook marketing agency.
But they were wrong. We simply forgot how Facebook used to work. Four years ago, Mom didn’t have an account and people couldn’t comment on wall posts—instead, conversations consisted of back-and-forth posts. But in the time between then and now, Facebook changed drastically, as did our attitude toward it. We were shocked by the things we used to say publicly. We literally didn’t believe it.
Like Timeline, Graph Search is another tool for people to dig into our past, often unintentionally. Heaven forbid you checked into a Hooters a couple years back and your boss, whom you just added as a friend, searches for nearby restaurants.
And yet Graph Search could nonetheless be a boon for the company. “It’s still at its infancy stage,” says Zelaya, who thinks it will take the company up to a year to monetize search, but it’s “probably the biggest Big Data play in recent times.”