Facebook Graph Search

By Steven Levy
Wired, January 2013

Edited by Andy Ross

For years, Facebook watchers have wondered when the company would unleash the potential of its underpowered search bar. Now we know. Graph Search is fundamentally different from web search. Facebook is helping its users tap its vast database to make better use of their social graph, as Mark Zuckerberg calls their network of relationships with friends, acquaintances, favorite celebrities, and preferred brands.

Graph Search will be able to extract meaning from the social graph in much the same way that Google's original search unearthed the hidden treasures of the web. Thanks to Graph Search, people will almost certainly use Facebook in entirely new ways: to seek out dates, recruit for job openings, find buddies to go out with on short notice, and look for new restaurants and other businesses.

Zuckerberg: "When I first made Facebook, we actually offered some functionality that was like this but only for your college. Facebook then was arguably as much for meeting new people around you and exploring your community as it was for keeping in touch with the people you already knew. But it was such a hard problem to do it for more than a few thousand people at a time."

Graph Search got its start in the spring of 2011, when Zuckerberg asked Lars Rasmussen to join him on a walk. Rasmussen, 44, had joined Facebook the previous year, from Google. Facebook, Zuckerberg said, had a unique opportunity to deliver fantastic value with detailed and targeted dives into its huge, structured database. Rasmussen was sold.

That summer, Rasmussen, armed with a crude demo, met with Zuckerberg. The engineer laid out an expansive vision that would allow the engine to process virtually any query. He talked of a search engine that could answer requests like "show me pictures of my friends and me visiting California in 2010."

Zuckerberg says he thought the approach was dead right but probably impossible: "You could type in anything you wanted and it would be the title of a new page with the content just magically laid out. No one’s gotten natural language to work like this. And then to actually be able to index all the stuff. There’s more than a trillion connections on Facebook! Building up the infrastructure to index all of it and be able to cut it in any way is a monumental technology challenge."

Graph Search will require a full Facebook makeover. To encourage people to write more detailed queries, Facebook made the search bar bigger, dominating a wide blue banner toward the top of the page. The rules of Graph Search are different from web search. Graph Search works better the more specific and complex the request.

Zuckerberg gave me an early look at Graph Search. The results dominated the left side of the screen, and the right side was filled with a dense column of further choices to refine or redirect my query. They call this the power bar. Each result also has a little search button, so you can do further searches on that result.

This launch version of Graph Search is only the beginning. Still absent: ads. But not for long.


AR This is so exciting. My work at SAP was largely on envisioning how to improve the search experience with structured search, and we found it very hard to implement structured search from natural language queries on SAP internal "social network" data. If Facebook can get this right, they take us a long way toward the "holy grail" of semantic search.