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Why Facebook Graph Search Is Huge for Start-ups

Rather than using filters to sabotage search results, Facebook lets you use them to find exactly what--or who--you need
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I’ve been worried for a while about the so-called filter bubble--the process by which search engines tailor their results based on what they already know about you. Search used to be a window onto new worlds, but it’s becoming a mirror, merely reflecting back to us what we and our friends already know. Our peers are important, but how do you learn anything new?

I’ve also been concerned about the loss of serendipitous discovery--the sheer joy we feel at a bookstore (remember those?) or a flea market (remember those?) when we come across something new and amazing and totally unexpected, and it just makes our day. You didn’t even know you were looking for something, but you loved it when you found it. And, of course, in search terms, you could never have constructed a query to find something you weren’t seeking. 

That’s why I’m excited about Facebook’s Graph Search. It will enable and enhance a lot of businesses (besides Facebook’s). That could include yours, once you understand some of the basics beneath the buzz.

Facebook Goes Back to its Roots 

Graph Search is a return to Facebook’s earliest days and, in fact, to its very origins. Even if everything you know about Facebook comes from the movie The Social Network, you know that at the beginning, Facebook was about finding pictures of the hottest women on campus. It wasn’t about women some guy already knew (search); it was about the women he wanted desperately to know (discovery).

Graph Search removes the blinders and filters from conscious search. It opens up a huge amount of additional material that was always there, making it more readily accessible. Broad content queries, constrained by the limiters and filters of who your friends are, provide an elegant way to get right to the heart of the interest graph.

How does this matter for business? Well, how much better would a Groupon deal do if in 10 seconds I could ask Facebook which of my friends were already participating in a particular deal? What if I could have Ticketmaster show me the seating charts for a particular concert, as well of which of my friends have bought tickets and where they are sitting?

Each of these components of the new Graph Search will change many of the ground rules for how (and whether) new and small businesses will be able to make themselves heard. It’s not going to be easier, but it will definitely be more interesting.

There’s a lot to learn about Graph Search. Three things to keep in mind:

Aggregation Graph Search does the heavy lifting for you and assembles the data and results of your friends’ likes, preferences and interests. You can build on your questions interactively and broaden or narrow them on the fly. Want to find single friends with MBAs who are living in San Francisco and working in the entertainment business? You got it in a flash.

Filters Instead of limiting your queries or your results in ways that were never really clear, filters now become helpful. They let you frame your selections, criteria and choices to avoid overwhelming and unwieldy results. You can dictate the limits of a query’s scope, time, location, images, etc. Looking for friends who loved Inglourious Basterds and are actually up for going to see Django?  Try that on Google.

Engagement For now, and this may change, assets like photos are “valued” and ranked and displayed in so-called “engagement order.” The more likes and comments a particular photo has, the more likely it will be surfaced. I think this criteria is in flux. Which photos are likely to drive the most activity? My guess is it’s the one that the person in the photo least wants circulated.

We’re headed into the next big burst of Facebook-enabled commerce. Millions of customers are going to be living within this Facebook economy and nowhere else. If you doubt that, just check out how many times the Facebook team repeated the idea that “you never have to leave Facebook” to get something accomplished online.

Here’s one last word of advice. Internally, two of the mantras used by the Facebook team when creating web content are: What will make them care? And, What will make them share? As you bring your products and services to market, keep these two questions top of mind. 

Last updated: Jan 16, 2013

HOWARD TULLMAN | Columnist

Howard Tullman is the CEO of 1871 in Chicago where, at the moment, 260 digital startups are building their businesses every day. He is also the general managing partner of G2T3V, LLC and Chicago High Tech Investors – both early-stage venture funds; a member of Mayor Emanuel’s ChicagoNEXT Innovation Council; and Governor Quinn’s Illinois Innovation Council. He is an adviser to many technology businesses and an adjunct professor at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management. @tullman

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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