If you do not think Facebook Graph Search is a big deal, you have not been paying attention to the way data, particularly social data, is changing the world. And if you believe Facebook's move is a threat to Google, you may have no idea how true that is, not in terms of today's search advertising market but Google's strategy for the future.
Facebook's big play here is not merely that it may have a search engine that competes with Google's. Yes, this innovation could shake up the search market and allow Facebook to make a bigger dent in Google's revenue in the online and mobile ad space. That may be good news for Facebook investors who, even if Facebook announces great Q4 results in two weeks, will still be holding Facebook stock at a price-earnings ratio that is somewhere between five and fifteen times higher than mature companies such as Google, Apple and eBay.
Instead of thinking about search in the way we do it today--reactive, slow, relatively difficult and often frustrating--flip search on its head. Think of your device knowing you well enough to furnish you with the information you would want when you want it without asking. This is a vision of "serendipitous search" that Google has been hinting at for years.
Now add the Facebook social layer--all the data it knows about you, your friends and strangers. Today, you may pull out your phone and spend five minutes with a Yelp app to find a clothes store; tomorrow your device could proactively let you know you are walking past one of your friends' favorite boutiques. And who do you trust more--strangers who may be compensated for posting trash reviews or your close friends?
Facebook Graph Search as a reactive feature is interesting but turned into a proactive feature, it can change our world. Imagine walking into a bar and knowing a friend is next door. Or entering a salon and finding out your friend loves a particular stylist. Or visiting a Greek restaurant and discovering your Greek friends love a different place around the corner. Or going to a car dealership and being told your friends were left feeling ripped off at this establishment but loved their experience at the dealership up the street. Want to extend your circle of friends? Change a setting and your device can alert you that a friend of a friend is nearby. Playing a tough golf course? One of your friends shared a tip for beating the ninth hole and posted his video birdying the hole! Listening to a song? A bunch of your friends who loved this tune also recommend a band that is new to you! Having a problem with PowerPoint? Searching for the answer is so last year when your device can recognize you are having a problem and inform you not only that your coworker is a PowerPoint guru but that she is online and available now through Facebook chat!
That is the promise of the "social layer," not simply that it populates our news feeds with inspirational Tumblr images but that it becomes data that makes our lives richer, easier and more social. If the term "social layer" rings a bell, it is because that is the phrase Google and others have been using to describe the search giant's own social strategy. And here we see how Facebook's hegemony in social data really brings it into competition with Google--not because a Facebook search engine may be competitive with Google's search engine, but because the company that has access to and uses our and our friends' data and turns it into something that enriches our lives wins and wins big.
And if that is not a sufficient picture of how Facebook and Google are on a collision course, let's take this one step further. In all of those examples I provided of how proactive or serendipitous data might change our lives, think of how this data arrives to you. Today, your phone buzzes or chirps and you need to stop what you are doing, yank out your device, unlock it and look at the screen. If you're driving, this risks lives. If you're walking--look out for that tree! On a first date? Well, that device better stay in your pocket if you want a second date.
Annoying, right? Okay, then put on a pair of Google Glasses--a new way to present information to you without demanding you drop everything, use your hands and shift your field if vision and entire attention. Suddenly the beauty of proactive, real-time information becomes even more evident. No more "third screens" that demand attention; now your real and virtual worlds can become merged seamlessly. Of course, this depends on how well the software and hardware work together and know what information you find useful and what you do not; still, you can begin to see how today's sleek smartphones could look as outdated as a StarTAC flip phone within five years.
Will Facebook be content to let Google own the wearable tech market and allow its hardware to be the conduit for Facebook's features and value proposition? That seems unlikely, and perhaps this is why those rumors of a Facebook phone have never been realized--the brass ring is not that Facebook becomes yet another player in a field crowded with iOS, Android, Blackberry, Windows and soon Tizen and Firefox OS. Instead, I wonder if Facebook recognizes that its future in furnishing real-time social data depends on finding a way to make that data seamless to users in a way that even today's best smartphones cannot accommodate.
There has been a lot of press in the last two days about what Facebook Graph Search means to Facebook and Google, but I wonder if we are witnessing not another battle for today's eyeballs and ad dollars but the first strategic moves into who owns the way humans merge their virtual and physical worlds in the future.