Facebook search puts networks to work

Paul Boutin / New York Times News Service /

Published Mar 24, 2013 at 05:00AM

Most Web users have become accustomed to using Facebook to keep up with friends while using more specialized sites and apps to search for restaurants, books and people. But if you have built up a network of Facebook friends, those connections can now help you find people, places and things in the real world, in ways that more specialized sites like Google, Yelp and Amazon cannot.

In January, Facebook began testing its new search tool, an enhanced version of the search box at the top of the site. The tool, Graph Search, gets its name from “social graph,” a technical term for the giant network of connections among friends, friends of friends and so on. The social graph includes not just members' names, but also the pages they have liked and the places where they have checked in.

Graph Search lets a user concoct short phrases instead of stand-alone search keywords; for example, “books my friends like.”

The tool does have limitations; if you're looking for the nearest sushi restaurant in a big city, or trying to browse the complete works of the author Susan Orlean, searching Facebook is not the way to do it. In many cases, though, Graph Search lets you take advantage of the clicking and typing your Facebook friends, and their friends, have already done.

Again, the book example. One of the most obvious graph searches is “books my friends like.” That will display the Facebook pages created for specific books on which friends of yours have clicked the Like button. Moreover, Facebook will show you which specific friends of yours liked each book, so you know who suggested which one.

You may have to scroll down a page or two to find a book you have not heard of before, or to dodge the collective bad taste of the social graph. One way around this is to search for “books liked by people who like what I like.” This both broadens the search beyond your friends, and narrows it to those who have clicked Facebook's Like button on the same pages as you.

With Facebook search, you can look for “restaurants my friends like in Boston” or “nearby sushi restaurants my friends like.” As with books, Facebook will tell you which friends like which restaurant, so you know whose advice you are getting.

Keep in mind that Facebook's idea of “nearby,” unlike that of a phone app, is not GPS-targeted. It can mean anywhere within city limits, even if it's 45 minutes away.

Test it

You can start a Facebook search by going to facebook.com/about/graphsearch and clicking the big button at the bottom of the page to replace the main search box with the enhanced Graph Search box. Facebook has not made the tool available on mobile apps yet.