Facebook’s new Graph Search feature promises to revolutionize our searches by tying together the social graph of our friends and Liked pages.
At first glance, the ability of the new search to bring together different bits of information as an answer to a natural language query is almost awe inspiring.
Ask for “people in my company under the age of 25 who like skiing,” and Graph Search will give you exactly that, at least insofar as your co-workers have been honest about their age and favorite sports activities.
But what about a search with more commercial intent?
Let’s say I’m looking for the Mexican restaurant nearby me that my friends think is the best. So I search on Facebook for “mexican restaurant nearby that my friends like.” And Facebook gives me a list of the most popular south-of-the-border eateries, according to my Durham NC area friends. Perfect, right!
You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means
Not so fast. Those “likes” by my friends, remember are Facebook Likes. And Like on Facebook may not always mean what you and I mean by “like” in the real world.
In the real world, if my friend Matt says, “I really like Sol Azteca in Morrisville.” It’s reasonable for me to assume that Matt means that he “likes” Sol Azteca because of their great food, and maybe other relevant factor like their atmosphere and service.
But what if Matt has “liked” Sol Azteca on Facebook? Does that Like necessarily mean the same thing?
Very often, it probably doesn’t. “Like” on Facebook can mean all sorts of things, and indicate all kinds of intent.
For example, it is not uncommon for people to “like” a Facebook brand in order to participate in a contest or offer with the brand. In the real world, if the only reason Matt liked Sol Azteca was they let him have an entry in their contest, he’d probably tell me that. He’d say something similar to, “I like that I might win $50 from Sol Azteca! Their food? Eh, not so great.”
But I have no way of knowing why Matt liked Sol Azteca on Facebook. So if they show up in response to my query for “mexican restaurants nearby that my friends like,” what I’m getting as a result may not be really recommendations of particular restaurants, at least not in the way we think of recommendations in real life.
The Coming Like Inflation on Facebook
Not only are recommendations based on Facebook Likes of dubious value, Graph Search may be about to cause them to get even worse, in an inflationary spiral.
Within an hour of the announcement of Graph Search, I was already seeing blog posts with tips for Graph Search search optimization. Inevitably one of the recommendations is to start getting as many Likes for your brand page as you can. It isn’t hard to see what will happen here. There has always been a race to run up the number of Likes for Pages. Now it will turn into an inflationary spiral that will make pre-WW II Germany look like a Golden Age.
Expect to see even more contests and coupon offers to get Likes. And expect there to be a sudden bulge in the pocketbooks of the “Likes for sale” businesses online.
But here’s where Facebook might win anyway: when people are getting crappy search results, they usually don’t know they are getting crappy search results. So if the average Facebook user never stops to wonder about the real meaning of her friend’s “recommendations,” she’ll continue to search for them and follow them anyway.
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