Facebook Graph Search is super-powerful – if all your friends obsessively post to Facebook

January 15, 2013 | 3 comments

Facebook’s new Graph Search is an exceptionally powerful idea. Here are some searches I’m looking forward to running:

  • Bars my friends like in San Francisco
  • My friends who like Doctor Who and live near me and like pizza
  • Friends that know [insert investor or entrepreneur name here]

Make no mistake: this is a new kind of search that shows the way for more advanced social software, everywhere. There’s no doubting that it’s an impressive achievement, that has the potential to change the way people use the Internet.

Or it would. You see, Graph Search’s Achilles’ heel is Facebook itself.

Facebook is a walled garden; a closed box. Information on the service stays on the service, and it’s hard to import it in from other places. As a result, the information about your likes, your friendships and your location in Graph Search are needfully based on information you and your friends have explicitly posted to Facebook.

That makes it much less of an achievement than it could have been. To use the above examples, I don’t tend to like bars or restaurants on Facebook (although I might on Yelp or Foursquare, or mention them on Twitter); I’m not going to tell Facebook that I like pizza, because why would I; and I’m much more likely to “friend” an investor or an entrepreneur on LinkedIn than Facebook, because the former focuses on my work achievements, and the latter is exponentially more likely to show them a picture of me at some random party next to some guy I don’t know wearing one of those beer hats. (Reader, I speak from experience.)

So Facebook is working from an incomplete social graph. What’s interesting to me is that if they turn more of their focus to social graph search, it makes more sense for them to start capturing more of the outside world – and become more open in the process. A company that to date has spent most of its energy capturing esoteric information about peoples’ personal lives and locking them in a black box will now have to learn to talk to the rest of the web, in order to allow this product to reach its full potential. There’s even an opportunity here for crawling and encouraging federated social networks.

Will this happen? It’s hard to say. Whether they decide to open up and start consuming and publishing graph information depends on their internal culture. It’s also a more complicated problem than, say, implementing a Google-style page search: Facebook has access permissions, which must be obeyed. The search results I see might be very different to the search results you see, based not just on our different social graphs, but what information about themselves our friends have chosen to allow each of us to view. If Graph Search just crawls public information, this is moot, of course, but having this deep level of privacy integration would be an actual reason to use Facebook to store this information. (Or for Facebook to start exporting its access control to third parties via an open API – this was an obvious route for Google+ to take, but they’ve been surprisingly slow to do so.)

Until Facebook opens up, which given all available information is a bit like saying until hell freezes over and golden rain falls from the sky, there’s still everything to play for in social search. Facebook has shown us the way, but while they only use a tiny subset of the information available to them, it’s only a proof of concept.

A pretty good day for Marissa Mayer: why Yahoo! could still win

July 16, 2012 | 5 comments

Not only was she named as the new Yahoo! CEO today – but she’s also announced that she’s expecting her first child. That’s up there with Mark Zuckerberg’s graduation-IPO-wedding triple whammy earlier this year.

At the time of writing, Yahoo! is worth over $19B. It’s certainly languished for the better part of a decade, and some of its leadership choices have been questionable. But it’s huge in Asia, its news and sports sites are the #1 in their respective categories, its APIs are widely used, Yahoo! Mail remains more popular than Gmail, and it still owns sites like the much-loved Flickr (which I’ve been using for years).

There’s a lot of potential energy in Yahoo!, ready to be converted into success.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, under Mayer, it became the new, friendly home for broadcast media. Here’s CNBC’s coverage of the CEO announcement, and here’s the corresponding coverage from Fox Business. Both are hosted on Yahoo!’s Screen portal, which also has deals with ABC News, MLB, the NBA, the NFL and the NHL – and I’m picking names out of a very large hat here. It’s worked hard for its friendly status with the content companies, and if you combine that with its content analysis technologies, aptitude for smart feeds and real social tech, as well as true hardware agnosticism, you’re looking at what could be a very interesting platform for 21st century content consumption. (Don’t believe me? Jason Kilar, Hulu’s CEO, was under heavy consideration for the leadership post until he bowed out.)

That focus would also sidestep Yahoo!’s biggest bugbear: the perception that it’s a search engine / web index directly in Google’s space. Yes, its origins lie there, but Google’s emphasis on algorithms would be an uphill struggle to beat – and while the Yahoo! Directory still exists, it’s clearly not the company’s prime focus. (Also, it’s worth considering that Mayer likely still has Google stock.) Better to embrace the spirit of Yahoo!’s early years and provide a space on the Internet that’s more about DNA than data.

Yahoo! won’t be an algorithm; it won’t be a click farm that tricks the user into building their own direct marketing profile. It’ll be a curated series of channels full of the stuff you care about. That’s its strength, and that’s what it should concentrate on.