Facebook turns up the heat on Google Search

Social network's Graph Search could change the way people think about search

With Facebook's new search service out in the open, the social network seems to be on a collision course with search giant Google.

"It appears that's the path Facebook is on," said Jeff Kagan, an independent industry analyst. "I think what they're trying to do is reinvent the search industry, like Google did years ago when it used to be ruled by Yahoo. I think Facebook sees an opportunity and they're trying to make it real."

The results could put a lot of pressure on Google.

"I think Google has been inventive and transforming ... but this really turns up the heat on them," Kagan added. "Google should be updating what they're doing and testing the same kind of solution."

On Tuesday, Facebook announced a new search tool called Graph Search, that will appear as a bigger search bar at the top of each page. The new tool is designed to search Facebook's massive store of user information to answer questions like "friends' favorite bookstores in Chicago" or "best place to go hiking in Vermont."

Graph Search will find out what hiking trails, what bookstores the user's friends, and even their friends, have liked.

If two people ask the same question, they're likely to get different results because the results will be based on their individual set of friends and contacts.

Brian Blau, an analyst with Gartner, said Google should pay attention to how users will expect search to function in the future.

If users start to expect different kinds of results from their searchers, Google will need to keep up with that change, according to Hadley Reynolds, an analyst with IDC.

"So Facebook's new search works on a completely different model than Google's," Reynolds said. "Facebook's biggest threat to Google is the amount of time it can command from Internet users. If Graph Search proves popular, Facebook users will have less need than they have today to leave Facebook to go do a Web search on Google."

While this may not be an immediate danger to Google's dominance in the search market today, over time, it could be.

If Facebook can succeed in transforming the search world into one where queries are answered by friends, or online-only friends, then Google will have a different issue on its hands.

How can Google get that kind of social backup? The company can pull friends' likes and dislikes off its own Google+ social network, but with a fraction of Facebook's user base, (it had 135 million members in December) it will have a smaller database from which to call information.

"This [Facebook] search could indeed impact Google on a growing scale over the next few years if it clicks with users," said Kagan. "If I were Google, I would see this as a Facebook warning shot across their bow. This is not an immediate attack, but nevertheless an attack is coming."

Some analysts say this is the opening round in a long-term campaign to unseat Google from its top spot in the search market. Graph Search would transform Facebook from being not only a social network, but an interactive tool that helps answer its users every-day questions, and find new favorite places and things.

Help from Microsoft

Facebook isn't alone in its efforts to rock the search world.

While Facebook built and is operating Graph Search for queries inside the social network, Microsoft's Bing search engine handles Web searches on Facebook.

For instance, if a user searches for "UCLA alumni living in Dallas," Facebook would handle the query. However, if the user searched for an answer to "what is the Higgs boson particle?", Bing would handle that.

Microsoft, an investor in Facebook, has been not only a partner with the social network, but also a longstanding rival of Google.

"Only together can Facebook and Bing take on Google," said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy. "Facebook brings the new content for social Graph Search and Bing has general search. Combined they can change the search game... This makes complete sense for Facebook to go after Google's monopoly on search as it means billions in profits."

Facebook may have unveiled Graph Search on Tuesday, but it's still in a limited beta release and only available to English-speaking users. Facebook has not said when it might be released on a wider scale or adapted for other languages.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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