Facebook’s Graph Search puts user privacy back in the spotlight



The unveiling of Facebook’s Graph Search was accompanied with the mix of hype and hysteria we have come to expect from the social network’s announcements. Graph Search is positioned as a search tool for the Facebook platform rather than the wider Web; this is consistent with Facebook’s drive to make itself the center of gravity on the Web, but has disappointed those observers who were expecting a more aggressive search strategy. Questions remain as to how Facebook will commercialize Graph Search and harness advertising revenues, an imperative for the social network following its IPO. The launch of Graph Search has also put user privacy center stage, with concerns that it might push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable use of personal data.

The commercial imperative for Graph Search

Graph Search has launched without advertising, but businesses and brands could by default find improved visibility in search results if they have fans within a user’s network, and there is no doubt that Facebook will want to monetize the tool directly. Since its IPO, Facebook has been under intense pressure to strengthen its advertising revenues, and harnessing search is one way to do this. The most obvious way it could monetize Graph Search is through sponsored search, whereby brands pay to have their advert above organically returned results. Another way could be by offering professional search tools to companies and recruitment firms. Facebook hinted at this scenario by demonstrating a recruitment search at the launch of Graph Search. This could be enhanced with a premium messaging service that ensures recruiters’ messages get through with maximum impact; Facebook is known to be exploring paid messaging opportunities.

Privacy issues are to the fore

Facebook insists that it built Graph Search with privacy in mind, and labored the point at the service launch. Graph Search will not surface information that is not already publically available, and appears to give members control over who is able to view results. Facebook is treading carefully, at least initially. However, Graph Search is still in beta, and therefore a work in progress, meaning that the social network will add more features. Given the revenue imperative, this will include features and policies designed to support advertising and other commercial opportunities. Facebook has a record of introducing advertising features that affect user privacy, and there are concerns that it may do so with Graph Search.

The majority of Facebook’s high-profile privacy rows have related to how it has tried to leverage user data to support advertising. Legal actions against the social network stretch back to 2007, when users challenged the “Beacon” feature, which tracked what individuals bought at participating sites and then shared the details with their friends. The most recent privacy backlash occurred in December 2012, when new terms of service where announced for Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. The new terms were intended to give advertisers more flexibility in incorporating user-created photos in adverts, but a storm of complaints forced Instagram to back down.

There is another, more immediate challenge for Graph Search: whether or not users feel it is eroding their control. In the past, the surfacing of information via search on Facebook was very basic, which actually provided a certain level of privacy. Graph Search changes that. Users will be able to find information that was not easily accessible before, and for some members this change in exposure might feel like an infringement of their privacy (even if technically it is not). The onus will be on members to be even more diligent with their privacy settings, and to think carefully about what they consider to be private.

Graph Search in the bigger picture

The relationship between Microsoft’s Bing search engine and Facebook’s Graph Search has been overstated, possibly because the link is confusing, and also because many observers were expecting a more aggressive search play. Microsoft has a longstanding relationship with the social network (in which it is an investor), and has been providing web search from the Facebook platform since 2010, but Bing does not power Graph Search. Instead it supplements the new search tool with web searches relating to the results of searches within Facebook. Microsoft is presumably hoping to benefit from more Bing search traffic from within Facebook – and from Facebook working with it on search rather than against it.

Some observers are disappointed that Facebook did not launch a fully blown web search engine of its own, given the lucrative nature of web search advertising. However, Ovum believes that Facebook’s modest start is sensible. A bullish debut in web search would have inevitably meant competing with Google search, and given Google’s dominance of the search market it would be hard for Facebook to make a serious impact. As it is, Facebook can experiment with Graph Search, treating it as a precursor to a more fully developed web search strategy that could prove a threat to Google in the long term.



Eden Zoller, Principal Analyst, Consumer Practice


Further reading

Facebook’s Prospects in a Post-IPO World (February 2012)


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