Facebook Graph Search -- a new tool that brings an Ask Jeeves-like function to the social-networking giant's search bar -- offers tantalizing possibilities. Want to find friends who like both Pulp Fiction and The Sound of Music? Type the question into the search bar and see the photos of your friends, as results, on the left-side of your profile.
What's their favorite Mexican restaurant in nearby Palo Alto? Results are listed by restaurant, with the "Likes" of friends listed. (The new search might enliven Likes, as friends decide to share everything with everybody, a recurring theme of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.)
Such a plethora of data isn't just salivating to advertisers and marketers who want to target their ads on Facebook, but a potential broadside to Google, Yelp, Foursquare and Match.com. Even LinkedIn faces competition: Graph Search is a good way, as Facebook demonstrated, to job recruit.
Zuckerberg insists the new feature, which is being slowly rolled out over the next few months, is not a Web search. But as Graph Search develops, it may more closely resemble Google.com, assuming Google integrates Google+ into its search service.
That's inevitable, says Larry Kim, chief technology officer at Internet marketing firm WordStream, because search is where the advertising is.
Google's share of the overall U.S. mobile ad market -- 57%, compared to Facebook's 9% -- is largely because of its dominant search business.
Facebook raked in about $4.2 billion from advertising last year -- 84% of its estimated $5 billion in total revenue, according to eMarketer.
Facebook stands to eventually elevate its advertising revenue because Graph Search opens the digital doors to potential advertisers in the markets for dating, job searches, product reviews and search.
The service offers Facebook members a "higher fidelity experience" -- one in which they "unlock the value" of so much personal data about friends and others, says Tom Stocky, director of product management at Facebook.
That's the kind of talk that marketers love to hear -- especially as Facebook adds more features to Graph Search. He says a logical candidate are posts that let Facebook members share and rank comments on events like the Golden Globes and Super Bowl.
Ultimately, it means "Facebook is setting the stage for the inevitable search war with Google, a war that advertisers and marketers want to happen so that there is more diversity and opportunity," says Chris Winfield, co-founder of BlueGlass Interactive, a search and social digital marketing agency whose clients include Disney, eBay and the NFL. "This lays the groundwork for them to roll-out their long-rumored AdWords/AdSense competitor that we should see next."
But Kim isn't convinced Graph Search's capabilities -- now relegated to people, places and photos -- are particularly useful in revealing commercial intent.
"In typical Facebook fashion, the announcement does not outline any benefit for its advertisers," he says. "There is no linkage to how you can monetize any of this. It is a conspicuous omission."
Cautions Forrester analyst Nate Elliott: "Even if they figure out how to grab all this data and plug it into the ad platform, they still haven't been able to offer it to marketers in a meaningful manner. There's so much more and richer data that could help marketers target their programs that aren't being used right now."
That could change as Facebook builds out the service with posts and develops a mobile version of Graph Search. But those developments are months away.
There also is privacy, the bugaboo that invariably comes with every new Facebook feature. Last month, Facebook had to tamp down a user uproar over a change in policy that would have made photos on its Instagram service available to advertisers.
"Even though (Graph Search) doesn't reveal information, it makes it easier to find older information you may have on Timeline and don't want to share," says Chris Conley, a technology and civil-liberties policy attorney at the ACLU.
"There's no question Graph Search does open up a number of new ways that your buried content can be discovered and used, including not only content you made publicly available years ago but even photos you intentionally hid from your timeline," Conley says.
Facebook says it's keenly aware about privacy concerns with Graph Search, and intends to make it clear to its 1 billion members what they share and tag in photos will be publicly viewable.
"In terms of the evolution of Facebook, this feels like the logical next step," says Ernest Doku, technology expert at uSwitch.com, a price-comparsion web site. "But it's only as reliable and useful as the tags people use. Most of us don't regularly update our favorite films lists on Facebook."
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)