Facebook’s Graph Search could be Google’s gain

Marketers should be keen to follow the progress of Facebook’s recently announced Graph Search as it slowly rolls out to users in the coming months. But, if the initial reaction to the service is anything to go by, the advertising opportunities thought to be attached to the search engine at a later date may not even get off the ground as users look unlikely to be forthcoming with the data that is so necessary for it to become a marketing utility.

Lara O'Reilly

Facebook describes Graph Search – which allows users to make queries on the site such as “who are my friends who like Star Wars”, “photos of my friends in 2001” or “restaurants nearby” – as the “third pillar” to complement the news feed and timeline.

It hopes the new function will encourage users to make new connections outside of their real-life friendship groups, based on their interests – in a bid to boost engagement on the site as a result.

Users, however, don’t seem as enthusiastic as the social network. The Graph Search launch sparked articles including “Did Facebook just become a stalking service?”, “Facebook’s Graph search: Why you need to fix your privacy settings now” and “Facebook Graph Search: You can run but you can’t hide”.

An audit of the Twitter response from social media analytics company Crimson Hexagon found that 19 per cent of users discussing the launch were expressing concern over privacy issues.

Anecdotally, one of the main concerns Facebook users appear to have about the forthcoming rollout is that photos, relationship statuses and locations are now incredibly easy for anyone – be they friends or strangers or enemies – to find. Most users understand a lot of this information was always publicly available, but never before has it been so easy to uncover.

One of the biggest issues appears to surround photos. Even users with the most stringent privacy settings may find themselves appearing in search results if they’ve been tagged in a photo by a friend who chooses to share their content publicly.

While the tagged user can go back and de-tag themselves and request their friend take the image down (and Facebook has changed its privacy settings to make this far easier), it’s quite an arduous process. I’ve spoken to someone who works at a school who is worried about what students might find when they search for teachers who are more lacksidasical over their privacy settings than he is.

Separately, many users may feel uncomfortable about the influx of friend requests they might receive as a consequence of appearing in the search results. The ability to type in queries such as “Which of Lara O’Reilly’s friends are single female and live in London” sounds a tad creepy – even if that wasn’t the intention.

Every time Facebook tinkers with its design or settings users invariably complain as human beings don’t like change. However, the roll out of Graph Search could be one step too far for users who just want to use the site as a way of keeping in contact with their actual friends.

Perhaps Google+ could be the next natural social media step for those users to make – a social network inherently designed to ensure you share content only with the Circles you choose to. And furthermore, perhaps these new users could make Google+ a more interesting proposition for marketers. Perhaps.

If Facebook is to convince marketers they should concentrate on search as well as the news feed and building up their fanbase on the site, they must first ensure the product is strong enough to warrant further ad spend. Hopefully the function’s slow rollout should give the social network enough time to encourage users to share the information they want public while giving them further autonomy on the stuff they want private to make sure Graph Search is actually functional and not full of gaps and misnomers.

If Facebook does not convince users their data is both useful to others and safe to share, it is unlikely to persuade marketers of the utility of its tool either. Facebook’s loss could potentially be Google+’s gain.

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