Search goes truly social

Search goes truly social

Facebook's new search tool uses friends and their ‘likes’ to find people, places and things, says Paul Boutin.

A screenshot of Facebook's Graph Search showing friends of friends who live in a given town. NYT

Most Internet users have become accustomed to using Facebook to keep up with friends – or at least, Facebook “friends” – while using more specialised sites and apps to search for restaurants, books and people.

But if you have built up a network of friends on Facebook, those connections can now help you find people, places and things in the real world, in ways that more specialised 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, which Facebook calls 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, to search Facebook; 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.

You can start a Facebook search by going to in a desktop or laptop browser, and clicking the big button at the very bottom of the page to replace the search box at the top of Facebook with the enhanced Graph Search box. Facebook has not made the tool available on mobile apps yet, but says it will do so later this year.

Once the tool is installed, try typing a description of what you want into the search box, preferably using the term “friend” or “like.” Pages will pop up, as well as suggestions for searches based on what you have typed so far, using conversational language. This differs from the keyword-oriented style of Google, in which a user tries to think of words associated with what is being sought. Graph Search looks at Facebook’s organised data – names, likes, friends, locations, photo tags and so on – but not status updates or comments.

Find a book: 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. (My own friends are too fond of books about social networking.) 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.
Some authors, like Orlean, are also active Facebook users who click the Like button on book pages. That means you can search for “books liked by Susan Orlean” to see more than a dozen reading suggestions from the author of “The Orchid Thief.”

Find a restaurant: Facebook cannot match Yelp’s extensive listings, reviews and block-by-block location targeting for finding a nearby restaurant. But while Yelp has a Facebook-like friend network, chances are you have not built up a network of your own there. Instead, you have built up a much larger network of Facebook friends, many of whom have been clicking the Like button on restaurant pages.

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.
Facebook search works best for advance scouting of new restaurants worth travelling to, like “Japanese restaurants near New York, New York, liked by people who live in Japan,” or “restaurants in San Francisco, California, liked by people who like what I like.”

In New York City, you can specify individual neighbourhoods like “Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York.”

If you are not looking for a sit-down meal, replace “restaurants” with “bars,” “sports bars” or “cafes” – for example, “cafes in Park Slope liked by people who like what I like,” or “sports bars in San Diego, California, that my friends have been to.” You’re possibly wondering if you can search for “restaurants liked by Susan Orlean.” The answer is yes: she has clicked on three of them.

Find a job: There are those who have attained employment by simply posting on Facebook that they were looking for work. But you are much better off looking for work on LinkedIn, the site dedicated to searching for employees and employers. (The LinkedIn app on Facebook is helpful for getting started. It will offer to send a barrage of connection requests on LinkedIn’s social network to all of your Facebook friends it can find there.)

Facebook search, though, is useful for looking into work at a specific company, or a specific field. Search for “my friends who work at Acme Widgets” and “my friends of friends who work at Acme Widgets” to find employees you may know who might be able to help you land a job there.

It’s important to search for friends of friends, because that list will often include people you know but have not friended yet on Facebook.

Find an old friend: Have you ever had trouble finding a long-lost friend on Facebook, because that person’s name matches those of a half-dozen members with unclear profile pictures? The trick is to make use of your existing friend network.

Let’s say you are looking for Mike Smith. There are far too many Mike Smiths on Facebook. But do you have a Facebook friend from the same era – call her Jane Doe – who was friends with Mike Smith? If so, the two may already be connected on Facebook.

Search for “people named Mike Smith who are friends of Jane Doe,” or more broadly, “people named Mike Smith who are friends of my friends.” Facebook can find him, even if he insists on being called Michael now. You can also search by first or last name only.
You can also take a more serendipitous approach to find people you may have forgotten from a city or town in which you used to live – for example, “friends of my friends who live near Lewiston, Maine.”

Facebook search will sort the results so that the Facebook users with whom you have the most mutual friends are on top. These are the people you are most likely to have known in a previous life. If you’ve ever sifted through and other yearbook sites, now you know why many of these people have not listed themselves there: They’re spending their time on Facebook instead.