16 Jan 2013
A hoodie-wearing Mark Zuckerberg took to a stage in San Francisco last night to show off the firm's latest feature, Social Graph.
While some had been expecting a Facebook phone, the smart money was on a search feature and so the announcement was not a huge surprise. The real issue, though, is what the tool means for Facebook, both for its own growth and rival Google, and if it's any good.
On the surface the announcement doesn't appear a huge threat to Google, as the focus is more on the social data within Facebook than web searches, a point Zuckerberg was keen to point out more than once.
However, the move clearly puts Facebook in position where it could undercut Google's own growing social-search push with its data from Google+. Boasting one billion users, Facebook clearly has an enormous head start here.
The team on stage where at pains to point out that the tool is in very early beta at the moment, and will be refined as more people start using it. V3 was able to swing an early beta pass, so we could get our grubby mitts on the tool, to see if it can live up to the hype.
Using the tool is easy: it sits at the top of the entire Facebook page and when you first place your cursor in the search bar it offers you a series of set topics you can dive into (shown below).
As you begin typing predictive results are offered – similar to Google – and generally these are fairly accurate, although some are a bit odd. A search for David Cameron offered David Cameron’s Bed. Erm, no thanks.
However, on playing around with the search functions the possibilities of the tool are revealed. For example, searching for photos becomes very interesting as you can have clearly defined searches for your friends, places, or dates.
We searched for photos of the London Olympics and were returned the below photos. It’s important to note these are not photos taken by us, or friends, but just public images tagged with the relevant information for Facebook to find.
This could well be of concern for those with a thing for privacy, although Facebook stressed that if you have your settings as private, your information will never be displayed to strangers, only friends.
Other interesting search capabilities including restaurants, books or films, helping you see what people you are friends with (and therefore trust, assuming to Facebook it seems) like to eat, watch or read.
However, where the tool really seems to excel is crossing to sets of data: for example, we searched for people in London that like Arrested Development; this returned friends of friends who have both sets of information listed in their profiles.
Of course, this does also make it a bit of a stalker's paradise. For example, you can search terms such as "photos of friends taken by non-friends" or even more worryingly, "photos of non-friends taken by friends".
Again, if you have the right privacy settings, Facebook seems to suggest you couldn't show up in such search terms, but given the complexity of ensuring you have the right privacy settings don't be surprised if you're being looked at by strangers.
Businesses could find use in the tool too, though. This could be through head-hunting, by searching for people with relevant skills and have mutual connections - thereby making it easier to get in touch with a potential employee - or to find out more information on page fans.
However, when V3 asked Facebook's team if they could elaborate on how businesses would be able to use the tool in other ways, we received a classic non-answer that just involved telling businesses to ensure their profile data is correct so users get the right information.
This doesn't really address questions of whether or not firms will have additional capabilities or controls, or how they can access data on their fans, but as the tool is only now available in a very limited beta, we'll forgive them and assume more information will come in the future.
For now, though, while Facebook might not have set the world ablaze with its announcement, it underlines the firm's growing ambitions, and, with a billion users' data behind it, it could well prove a worrying development to Google.