Finally, a reason to 'like' Facebook
I don't generally "like" stuff. I don't check in either, and the one or two times I've tagged someone, I've usually regretted it. (They have too). Part of the problem is that I'm an introvert. I've amassed loads of friends and followers on Facebook, but I'm not a naturally social person, and I don't like bothering everyone with the news that I watch Girls. (For that, follow me on Twitter.)
The deeper issue, though, is that Facebook has never explained why we're supposed to be liking and checking in and tagging. Some people do this stuff as a means of self-expression - your profile is your face on the web, so you like Arcade Fire and you check in to that new vegan place because you want to make a statement about who you are.
But for most of us, "liking" is just a lot of trouble. We use Facebook to keep in touch with friends. Unlike Google or Amazon, Facebook is a place to have fun, not a utility where you make decisions about what to buy or where to go. And for some critics, Facebook's inherent purposelessness seems like a huge shortcoming - if it's just for fun, then however big it gets, it's vulnerable to the next fun thing to come along (Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest or something else).
This week, Facebook finally made itself useful. It gave us a reason to care about "likes", check-ins and tags. That reason is a search engine, which Facebook is calling Graph Search. It's a feature that many users have long demanded. Now, you can type in simple queries to find the most interesting photos, businesses, or media among your connections or across Facebook's hordes.
For instance, if you want to know which TV shows your friends enjoy, just type "TV shows liked by my friends" into the new search box at the top of your screen. And you can go even further, slicing up your network - or even all of Facebook's users - into tinier and tinier niches. If you're a New Yorker who's planning a Girls party, try "friends who like Girls who live in NYC." If you're a guy looking for a deeper connection, add a few more parameters: "photos of friends of friends who like Girls who live in NYC who are single women between 20 and 34 and like Arcade Fire."
I actually tried that query, and it worked - meaning, Facebook did understand what I was looking for. But it didn't produce any results - that is, my dream woman doesn't exist, or, if she does, she hasn't liked Girls and Arcade Fire on Facebook. When you get access to the new search engine - it's being rolled out to Facebook's users "very slowly," Mark Zuckerberg said at Tuesday's launch event - I suspect that you, like me, will spend a half hour typing in many such odd juxtapositions of people, places and things.
You'll immediately notice Facebook search's amazing user interface and flexibility. You'll also spot one glaring problem: The search results aren't that good.
While many of the answers I got back were on the money, a lot of them were strange. For example, when I searched for "Restaurants liked by people who live in San Francisco, California" and "Restaurants liked by people who live in Palo Alto, California" I got the same top result: Facebook's corporate cafeteria, the Facebook Culinary Team. Now, I've had a couple good sandwiches at Facebook's caf, but I don't remember ever being knocked off my feet. Something with the search engine seemed screwy.
These sometimes strange results aren't fatal. Zuckerberg and others who worked on the new engine stressed that they're rolling it out so slowly in part because they need a lot more users to improve its results. Search algorithms improve as more people use them, which I'd bank on happening here. And if that does happen, Facebook search could become an important part of your daily web scrounging - I can imagine using it as my first stop to find hotels, restaurants, doctors and maybe even the consumer products I now go to Amazon for.
Facebook's search engine brings its rivalry with Google into stark relief, especially when you consider that Facebook is using Bing as a fallback - when it can't find you good social results, it shows you web results from Bing. As it is today, Facebook's new search shouldn't send anyone at Google into a panic. No one is going to use this as a substitute for good old web search. If anyone should be worried about Facebook's search right now, it's Yelp, Tripadvisor, LinkedIn and other specialty social and review sites.
But today's Facebook search is only the first version, and as long as users co-operate, it's bound to improve dramatically. It's wise to remember, too, that Facebook doesn't have to beat Google's search engine to hurt Google as a business.
If Facebook search becomes only the second most useful site on the web, it would add to the social network's existing role as the web's biggest time-waster. In other words, if Facebook perfects its vision of search, the social network would be fun and useful, all in one. That would be a worth a lot of billions.