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Facebook pits itself against Google in search

Facebook wants to harness the power of its large customer base to delve into the search category. While mobile is not immediately on the agenda, the move points to the social network?s growing aspirations to become a digital marketing powerhouse that can take on the likes of Google.

The new Graph Search service from Facebook will let users search for people, photos, places and interests based on content that has already been shared with them. For example, someone could query Mexican restaurants in a specific city that have been frequented by that user?s friends.

?Facebook already has a significant number of mobile users,? said Matt Lawson, vice president of marketing for Marin Software, San Francisco. ?From that standpoint there is a huge opportunity to engage these users.

?Search Graph could potentially keep mobile users on Facebook more,? he said. ?The main challenge will be delivering useful search results.

?Google has the advantage of being able to deliver results from across the Web, which encompass a variety of topical areas, whereas Facebook will be most valuable for a specific use case ? finding information about friends and their interests. It may take time for Facebook to build up the value of their results, or for users to understand when they should look to perform a search on Facebook as opposed to another search engine.?

Making new connections
Now that it is a public company, Facebook is looking for ways to continue to expand its offerings. Search has long been suggested as potential new avenue for the company if it could figure out how to leverage the extensive amount of user-generated content on its site in a way that is meaningful to users.

Graph Search, it hopes is the answer and one that the company says users have been asking for.

Facebook is calling the new service Graph Search to differentiate it from Web search. Queries in Graph Search are not keyword directed but more structured, such as "friends who like Star Wars and Harry Potter."

When a user enters such a query, the results come back as a list of the user's friends who meet the criteria plus a chance to see other movies that these friends like.

The goal is to leverage the content Facebook users are already putting out there on the network to help others make new connections.

From a mobile perspective, Graph Search could make it easy for users to find local businesses.

?Facebook has essentially overlaid the social graph on top of the process for searching for information about friends and their interests,? Mr. Lawson said. ?This has big implications for how people get recommendations through word of mouth.

?First, users who may be out and about shopping or looking for a restaurant to go to could turn to Search Graph to see what their friends have recommended,? he said. ?This offers the potential of an instant answer instead of having to post a question to the wall and wait for responses.

?Second, if Facebook not only shows what a user's friends recommend but also returns a location, phone number or some other information, than a Facebook user won't have to conduct another search outside of Facebook for that information. The integration of Facebook data and Bing with Search Graph signals Facebook is possibly moving in this direction.?

Facebook says the search function will help users find people and can be used as a recruiting tool, suggesting Facebook may be looking to take on professional social network LinkedIn.

By enabling users to also search for restaurants that friends have been to, Graph Search could also give Yelp a run for its money.

Mobile search opportunities
Graph Search is currently available in a limited beta and will start rolling out very slowly.

If users cannot find what they are looking for via Graph Search, Facebook has a partnership with Bing to provide Web search results.

Facebook said it wants to bring Graph Search to mobile but that this is not an immediate focus.

While Google is the undisputed leader in search on both desktop and mobile, the company does face some challenges when it comes to mobile search.

Google has had difficulties monetizing mobile search as paid search ads in mobile generate significantly lower revenues than their desktop counterparts. The mobile search experience on Google has also been criticized, a potential weakness that Facebook may try to capitalize on.

While Facebook is focusing on the user experience for Graph Search at the moment, from a monetization perspective there is the opportunity for Facebook to extend its existing sponsored search results to the new service.

One of the issues Facebook is likely to come up against with this strategy are concerns over user privacy, which Facebook is addressing by enabling users to search only for content that has already been shared with them.

?Gaining search market share from Google will be a tall order for anyone, but search is also a large market,? Mr. Lawson said.

?Facebook already captures a small share of search, with billions of queries for people served each year,? he said. ?Graph Search is another step towards gaining a piece of the global search pie.

?What's interesting about this is Search Graph allows you to search for a different kind of information than you would on Google. As a result, we think this is more likely to grow the overall market for search, creating new options for consumers, as opposed to battling for share with Google direct.?

Final Take
Chantal Tode is associate editor on Mobile Marketer, New York