Mike Isaac

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With Graph Search, Facebook Needs to Go Beyond the “Like”

Zuckerberg_stand_upFacebook unveiled its Graph Search product on Tuesday morning, a personalized search engine built for users looking to surface content inside the social network.

Problem: One of Facebook’s main ways of serving up relevant content is based on the “Like” button. Think of the stuff in your news feed — much of what flows through it comes courtesy of the types of items you’ve “Liked” in the past.

This is not to say Facebook only relies on the “Like” button. Things like profile visits, things you’ve listend to and photos you’ve viewed all serve as signals. But to serve up the best search results — especially in terms of places — Facebook needs far more signals to return the most pertinent stuff to its users.

In other words, “Liking” isn’t enough to cut it anymore.

That’s why the company will begin to lean heavily on a greater number of signals, emphasizing new ways of collecting data from users inside of Facebook. As Mark Zuckerberg said at the press conference this morning, check in to a restaurant, for example, and Facebook will now prompt you for a little bit more insight on your feelings on the place. It’ll ask you to rate the restaurant from one to five stars, for instance, and prompt you with a question on how much you like the place.

The other hope is that users will begin to check in to more Places using Facebook’s location services on their mobile phones and discover other points of interest using the new “Nearby” tab — also on their mobile phones. So not only will you be able to use the services to open up local discovery, but your history of check-ins and visits can help refine the types of places you’ll search for and are likely to visit in the future.

This is well-trodden territory from competitors like Yelp, which relies heavily on ratings, and Foursquare, which is the go-to mobile application for checking in to places. Both of these services are essentially local discovery engines, aiming to make it easier to navigate the world.

But if Facebook can rely on its powers of suggestion to get people to enter more data — like ratings of places and check-ins — the more signals will feed into Graph Search, and ostensibly, the better the results will be.

Potential roadblocks: Right now, Facebook isn’t known well for either check-ins or ratings — those are verticals owned by Foursquare and Yelp. But again, Facebook is far, far bigger than the 30 million-user Foursquare, and has potential for many more place ratings if the company can convince users to dole out their judgments.

Beyond check-ins and ratings, there are a number of other signals that Zuckerberg wouldn’t get into onstage (my guess is that they’re nerdy to the extreme). But one thing is for sure: If Facebook wants to own relevance, it’ll need to go far beyond our willingness to “Like” things.

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Nobody was excited about paying top dollar for a movie about WikiLeaks. A film about the origins of Pets.com would have done better.

— Gitesh Pandya of BoxOfficeGuru.com comments on the dreadful opening weekend box office numbers for “The Fifth Estate.”