How Facebook's new search tool could also help businesses

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg introduces Graph Search at an event in Facebook's Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters this morning. Credit: Martyn Williams, IDG News Service

Businesses that aren't very active on Facebook might want to think about ramping up their presence in case Facebook's new service proves useful.

Facebook's new Graph Search, announced this morning but not yet available, could be a valuable tool for businesses, who increasingly use the social network to maintain contact with customers.

Graph Search is designed to offer a much better search function for Facebook users to find material they and their contacts have posted on Facebook. It is not a full web search tool like Google or Microsoft's Bing, but is rather meant to improve the fairly poor internal Facebook search available now.

For instance, users will be able to find all the photos they've liked, search for all photos of two particular people, and find all their friends who live in a particular city, Tom Stocky, a Facebook product director said on a video about the service. Other examples Facebook offered include looking for music that friends like or searching for people who like cycling who are from your home town.

Facebook pitched the new feature as an end-user benefit, but in fact it could prove extremely useful to businesses who want to make the most of their presence on Facebook.

For instance, a retail business might be able to search among its users for everyone who likes posts about a certain kind of product in order to offer them a deal, or search for all followers in a city in order to invite them to an event. A business might be able to search for followers who have attended certain kinds of events or checked in at particular locations.

Business could use Graph Search in more subtle ways. Searching for the kind of food and music followers in a city like could inform decisions about the kind of food and music featured at an event.

Eventually, Graph Search could become a useful tool for advertisers as well. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that the company is not displaying advertisements in search results at first, but as the product matures, this seems like an obvious way for Facebook to increase revenue -- and perhaps steal some search ad budget from rival Google.

That has annoyed at least one company in the advertising business, who also said the service sounds limited. "Unfortunately, the new Facebook Graph Search capabilities are limited to people, places, photos, and other types of searches that are weak in revealing commercial intent. In typical Facebook fashion, the official Facebook Graph Search announcement does not outline any benefit for its advertisers," said Larry Kim, founder and CTO of search marketing software developer WordStream.

Facebook said that results will only show things that have been shared with you on Facebook.

For now, Facebook Graph Search available in a "very limited program" in the U.S. Facebook is offering a sign up page for people who are interested in finding out when they can start using the service.

The concept behind Graph Search is reminiscent of a similar service from Microsoft's Bing search engine. Users who connect their Bing searches to Facebook will see results in the right hand column of Bing that come from their Facebook friends.

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