Jul 09, 2013

    Digging up data in FB? Try Graph Search

    FACEBOOK is an excellent tool for social interaction, but just try finding that photo of mum and dad in front of the Eiffel Tower during their 2008 trip to Paris, or the name of that lovely bistro nearby that they mentioned in a status update.

    Odds are, you would have to plough through a lot of old posts and photos to dig out that information, if you could find it at all.

    Now, Facebook is trying to make it easier to find that lost photo or restaurant recommendation and unearth other information buried within your social network, with a tool called Graph Search.

    Yesterday, the company rolled out the feature to its several hundred million users in the United States and to others who use the American English version of the site. The feature will be made available on other versions in the future.

    Developing a sophisticated search feature is vital to Facebook's long-term success, both to deepen users' engagement and to make it more appealing to advertisers.

    Experts say Facebook's technical achievement so far is impressive. Privacy could still be an issue, however, as more user data becomes easily accessible. Also, the feature is dependent on Facebook users volunteering more information about their likes and dislikes.

    Since Facebook released an early version of the tool in January, the development team has been observing and listening to millions of testers and making improvements. Facebook's Graph Search is still a work in progress, as company officials are quick to acknowledge.

    Its recognition of synonyms and related topics is spotty. It still cannot find information in status updates, a top request from users. It does not incorporate information from third-party apps like Yelp or Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. And the new search tool is not available on Facebook's mobile app, which is increasingly the way that people use the service.

    But Facebook believes Graph Search is now good enough for wide release. And despite the tool's limitations, technologists praised the company's work.

    "There is a near infinite variety of ways to say anything in English or in any other language," said Dr Nick Cassimatis, an associate professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a co-founder of SkyPhrase, a start-up working on similar natural-language search technology.

    "(Facebook is) trying to memorise all the ways of saying something."

    Unlike Google's familiar search engine, which typically takes the keywords entered into a search box and matches them to the most relevant webpages that contain them, Facebook's search looks primarily at structured data.

    That means the company analyses the virtual check boxes people fill out on the site, like movie pages they have liked, restaurants they have checked into, the city they live in and their relationship status.

    Facebook promises that Graph Search will show information which the searcher would normally only be allowed to see under the privacy settings defined by the person who posted the data.

    So, a search for Christians in San Francisco who like to knit would not pull up everyone who fits that profile, but only those who have decided to publicly disclose their religion, love of knitting and location.

    As Graph Search becomes widely available, Facebook users might be surprised at what information about themselves shows up in searches that others look for, especially if older items were posted with looser privacy restrictions.

    Finally, the company must deal with the flood of new data coming in. It said its 1.1 billion global users posted 3.3 million items every minute in May.

    If the company does make it easy for users to sift through all of that information, it could open a new era in search.

    Google and specialised search sites present users with information from strangers, said Mr Danny Sullivan, founding editor of Search Engine Land and a long-time observer of the industry.

    Facebook is "promising us the ability to search the knowledge of our friends", he said.