Is Facebook’s recently-launched Graph Search a worthy rival to Google Search? Will it deprive Facebook users of their privacy by ferreting out practically every bit of personal information about them? Geeta Padmanabhan finds out the reaction of FB users to the new tool that allows them to search the social network in a different way

It had to happen. After all, Facebook has managed to convince one-seventh of the world's population to share personal details online. In its first big tech news of the year, FB opened its stable door to release Graph Search, the third in its product sequence — after News Feed and Timeline. The reaction was on expected lines: Is Graph Search (GS) a worthy rival to Google Search?

Let's see. GS is a tool to ferret out personal information Facebookers, often incautiously, put out on their social graph. You ask and FB algorithms will filter search results, ranking the friends and brands that it thinks you would trust the most. As Zuckerberg said, GS is “designed to show you the answer and not links to answers.” The first version of GS will mine users’ interests, photos, check-ins and “likes” from its network of “a billion people, 240 billion+ photos and a trillion+ connections.” Your search will yield information and pictures posted by friends as well as public posts from everyone else on FB. Examples: People: “friends who live in my city,” “people who like things I like.” Photos: “Photos of my family,” “photos of my friends before 1999.” Places: “Cities visited by my family,” “Indian restaurants liked by my friends from India.” Interests: “Movies liked by people who like movies I like,” “languages my friends speak.” Searching through status updates and written messages/posts are in the pipeline. The firm partners with Microsoft's search engine Bing.

“It's a structured search,” said Mahesh, a computer engineer. “We call it semantic. Instead of key words, search engines understand how people/places/things relate to one another.”

Paradise for ads

That makes it a paradise for ads, when FB monetises search results. You search for friends who have liked a car, and the adman has a pin-pointed audience. And don't forget, you share info, search for info, and you stay glued to the FB world. Wrote Arvind Bhatia of Sterne Agee, “Long term, we think this will be a big revenue opportunity.”

Yes. Google, Yelp, Foursquare, TripAdvisor and Hunch have been trying to make search more social. They give you personal answers and recommendations, along with links. OKCupid and eHarmony determine compatibility based on responses to a series of questions. The difference with GS is its scale. Facebook's dating pool looks limitless. But then, as the tool creators, most of them former Google employees, admitted, GS won't succeed if Facebook data is “sparse.” You declare more details about yourself, “like” more things, and you become “more useful” when friends search for information they need.

Funnily, the sweep-and-hook tool comes at a time when people are growing cautious about what they want to share on the Internet, now that colleges and companies routinely check Facebook pages of candidates. Surveys by Northwestern University and Pew Internet Center found social network users aggressively pruning their profiles. “I don't want to be searched all the time,” says Ambika, who counts her FB friends in hundreds. “I'm restricting my messages to 'Happy birthday'.”

We respect privacy, promised Zuckerberg. Don't want a compromising picture/detail to reach a potential employer's eyes? Restrict its viewership to “close friends.” Check “privacy aware.” Still, you cannot always remain incognito. If someone posted a picture and tagged you in it, it could be found even if it's hidden on your timeline. FB insisted the search tool would only show photos or information that's otherwise available on Facebook. But if you haven't gone through Facebook's multi-layered privacy settings, you'll find that an old photo or other information is unearthed much more easily with GS.

Cool or creepy, asked a headline. “It's about time they did something like GS!” says Pankaj Dugar, Founder/CEO, Treetle.com, a networking site. “More was needed to keep people engaged, to have sustained value in the longer run. Really, how long can you bear to see updated pictures of my cat?” Yet, he has doubts about what GS can really achieve. For a regular user, this service needs to evolve, go beyond curiosity searches to facilitate forming groups based on specific searches. “With Treetle.com, you search for specific interests and find people/groups in your neighbourhood that represent those interests. It's much more powerful since your existing network might not share your interests. On FB the search is limited to friends and friends of friends. Also, many people may not be okay with super specific targeting.”

KNOW MORE…

* GS is the first product announcement from FB's campus in Menlo Park.

* It now goes to a small test group of Facebook users.

* Graph Search will appear as a bigger search bar at the top of each page.

* Search determines the set of results you get, serves as a title for the page.

* You can edit the title, create your own custom view of the content.