Do you remember what the Internet was like back in the 90’s? Facebook, Twitter, YouTube didn’t exist and the web search engine battle was between two upstarts: Altavista and Lycos. (and when those failed you could fall back to Gopher, but I’m starting to date myself). Then a scrappy player named Yahoo! appears and changes the game; it wasn’t a general search engine but a web portal that allowed users to add sites that interested them and people rated if they were good enough. It was a destination to easily locate what was good on the Web and filter out the trash, all curated by the people using Yahoo!. It was actually fantastic and during the early years of the Internet it was a pioneer in introducing people to the World Wide Web. Search engines back then were “ok”, but if you wanted to find something interesting you went to Yahoo! But then the world changed
and the Web exploded and the pioneer couldn’t keep up. As more and more people and businesses flocked to the web Yahoo! wasn’t being updated fast enough and soon the quality of its results weren’t reliable – too much chaff being submitted and not enough qualified people to keep the noise down. Then Google appeared and we were rescued from the sea of bad websites with search results so uncannily accurate we were all ‘feeling lucky’. We no longer had to curate what was good and bad for ourselves – the omnipresent Google machine did it for us. For a few decades, it was and still is the search engine of choice. Around 2003, Social Networking started taking off with MySpace arriving on scene but quickly eclipsed by Facebook as the general network of choice to belong to… it changed the game in more ways than we could ever imagine.
At first it was purely a destination to connect with others and making it easier to remain in touch over in an effortless manner that e-mail could never do. We suddenly had access to people’s thoughts and personal situations; if they were married, graduated from a school, liked a pizza parlor, showed up at a hockey game… we have access to more information about the people in our lives than we ever had in our history! Now with Facebook Graph Search it’s taking advantage of all the information we’ve been feeding it.With Graph Search, Facebook is really very similar to Yahoo! in the ’90s – it wants to become your destination to discover new content that has been qualified by over a billion of people. The difference is that Yahoo! was never able to make its results personable and make it easy for people to submit information.
Facebook Graph Search is extremely powerful as it has a treasure trove of qualified data we’ve been feeding it for years. For example, if I wanted to know “What Burger joints in Toronto that my friends like”, it’s able to tailor the results based on who I’m related to. It can even expand the context to “Photos of Burger joints that Top Chef contestants and Mark Zuckerburg like in San Francisco” – all from pressing a simple “Like” button posted on a page. This is an amazing feat that Yahoo! could have benefited from – being able to drive information back to it without having to visit its site.
Privacy advocates will have a field day with this service saying that it’s an abusive use of our data and we should all have to opt-in for the service. I’d usually jump on the band wagon, but in this case I think Facebook is on to something – contextually relevant search results based on my interests and the interests of my friends is of value. If designed properly your data should remain protected and strangers should not be able to directly find any information about you except that you’re part of the billions of users who expressed that you liked something. This has yet to be seen, but Mark Zuckerberg even stated that Facebook Graph Search was built with privacy in mind so I’m willing to see if he’s learned something from his battles in Europe and Canada. Graph Search should be a massive decluttering of people’s wall posts – no more “Hey, can someone recommend me a coffee house in New Jersey” when all you have to do is search.
So is this Yahoo! all over again? Yes and No; Yahoo! had the initial concept first, but the explosion of the Web made it difficult to keep up and the era of social networks didn’t exist to keep its portal relevant. Facebook’s advantage is that it has a billion strong user base that is active in expressing its interests through a service that they are not willing to abandon. This gives them the ability keep search results relevant and tailored for you in the long run – all they need to do is make sure they’re search engine gets things rights.