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Drawing the Lines on Graph

After a few short months of anticipation since its initial announcement, the live rollout of Facebook’s new Graph Search is now just on the horizon. Billed as the latest in a long line of ‘next big things’ that rarely make too big a splash, Graph Search is actually generating quite a bit of actual buzz. The reason is simple: it is the first concept to have a real chance at disrupting the deep-seated user behaviors engrained from using traditional search engines for the past 15+ years.

The idea is basic enough; presenting search results about people and activity in a visual style, and personalizing findings to a user’s own network to bring up more relevant information. Although Google, Yahoo!, and Bing certainly aren’t too difficult to operate, this style of search also comes off as a bit more intuitive, accepting criteria based on speech and the way a social citizen, not a programmer might think (you don’t need an advanced degree in Boolean logic to get more precise, localized results).

There are the requisite concerns over issues of privacy – some worry that companies are trying to explicitly monetize Facebook users and collect their personal data. But Graph results are restricted by user sharing preferences, allowing social networkers to control this information to some degree. When it goes live, many users will play around with Graph, but the platform will likely only be utilized by a certain segment of the overall FB population; one that includes a plethora of brands.

Because of this, far more important to note is the way that Graph may flip current SEO and SEM practices on their respective heads. A study by IT firm Mainstay Salire found that on average, local Facebook pages receive five times more marketing reach and as much as eight times more ‘engagement’ per fan than corporate brand pages. Graph is positioned to potentially make these numbers even greater. What brands wouldn’t want to build a more localized, more focused fan base?

Although comparable in practice, Graph must be viewed as an entirely different channel for businesses than typical search engines, requiring its own strategy if it is to be implemented effectively. Even the key metrics are different – ‘likes’ actually become more important, and goals should move away from linkbuilding and traffic in favor of building the kind social capital that has been revealed as the real driver in social media marketing.

Search can be a way of discovering customers’ intentions, but the assumption that users will adopt Graph as their search engine of choice, if at all, remains untested. Although the network is large, even immense, the quality of content found is really the most important factor for search engines, and the big 3 have that market fairly well covered. What if the launch of Graph simply puts more users off than it turns on? Facebook’s business could be taking another step in the wrong direction.

Facebook has had both great successes and more than its share of missteps in the past. Graph is emerging as the next big gamble – whether it lifts the social network to new heights of personal and brand engagement or acts as the straw that breaks the camel’s back for users is up in the air.

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