Ever since Facebook Co-Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg discussed the topic of search at TechCrunch Disrupt in September, industry experts have been wondering what the social network would do. The answer is Facebook’s graph search — a tool that combines Web searching with the connections that users have on the site. It’s a powerful tool that can be used by people looking for photos of friends, connections, dentists, restaurants, movies, or pretty much anything else. This new utility can challenge Google, Yelp — and even Match.com.

Zuckerberg noted that Facebook is comprised of three main pillars: what’s going on with the world around users (news feed), what’s going on with themselves (timeline), and now what their friends are doing (graph search).

Facebook’s mission has always been to make the world more connected. Through graph search, that’s now possible on several levels. Zuckerberg said, adding that with roughly 1 billion users, 240 billion photos, and 1 trillion connections, there was no clear, concise way to find them, except for digging manually.

Now (well, soon), Facebook users can type a query into the search box, such as “Friends who live in New York and like Metallica,” or “Dentists my friends like,” and get instant results. This way, users can get relevant results instead of a broad search on Google or a search on Yelp for services near them. Those who are more curious could also type in, “Restaurants in Seattle that Web developers like,” to see what people similar to you may be into.

With Yelp, people can see reviews from people who have patronized businesses, but not necessarily their friends. Facebook’s graph search changes that. Now if a Facebook user is looking for a doctor or a barber, they can see what their friends have already liked and where they have checked in.


Facebook has one big thing going for it that no other competitor does — personal connections. As much as Google Plus is growing, it’s still no match for Facebook’s 1 billion user base. Several experts have pointed out that recommendations carry much more weight when they come from someone users know, instead of from brands or random people. This way, users can see restaurants friends have checked into several times or movies that friends posted about  — combining the power of search with Facebook’s immense social graph.

Facebook noted that these results are limited to your social connections, meaning you can’t find people with whom you have no connection whatsoever. Looking for people who enjoy mountain biking in Washington, D.C., will return a list of friends and friends of friends who have that interests in that location.

Additionally, people who are looking for ideal vacation destinations can search for places their friends have been.

Zuckerberg explained how graph search is different, and more efficient, than Web search:

This is infrastructure we’ve been building up for years, and it’s something that nobody else has … In general, Web search is designed to take any open-ended query and return to you links that may have answers to the questions you might have. Graph search is very different. Graph search is designed to take a precise query and return to you the answer, not links to other places where you might get it from.

While graph search is a powerful way to find recommendations from friends and to discover new places and people, it has potential far beyond a Yelp/Facebook mashup.

Facebook reps have talked about how graph search can be a very useful tool for journalists searching for sources. Tom Stocky, Facebook’s director of product management (a former Google employee), even seriously talked about how graph search can be used for dating — just pop in a location, relationship status single, as well as shared interests, and you can find friends of friends who fit the filter.

But Facebook Director of Engineering Lars Rasmussen (co-creator of Google Maps) feels that most people will use the powerful graph search tool to find photos. Trying to remember that awesome photo of you and your friends from a San Francisco 49ers game, and can’t remember who uploaded it, but didn’t tag you? Users can search “Photos of friends at Candlestick Park” to easily find the pictures.

Users can even find photos of friends before a certain date:

Facebook is also chipping away at Google’s image search by tapping into public photos posted on Facebook. Want to find a photo of the Grand Canyon? You can now do that through Facebook, which has a Web search component powered by Bing. Zuckerberg said he doesn’t expect this to be the most popular feature, but it has potential.

Zuckerberg told the packed room that Facebook hasn’t done this on mobile yet, since the company’s mobile developers have been so busy improving the native applications that they haven’t had time to tackle this project. He stressed that graph search is still in early testing and will be slowly rolled out. It is currently available only in beta for select users in U.S. English, but as more tests are done and the graph search is tweaked and improved, it will be available for more people around the world.

Users cannot opt out of graph search as a whole, but they can tighten up their security settings to make it that certain searchable elements (location, etc.) can only be seen by them. Graph search also includes much clearer security settings, so users can see photos they’re tagged in and better understand who can see this content. Users can also remove tags easier and send a message to those who tagged them, requesting that the photos be taken down.

If you want to be among the first to test this, click here to be added to the wait list.

Readers: What do you think of Facebook’s graph search?

Screenshots courtesy of Facebook and Inside Facebook. Photos by Justin Lafferty.