Facebook had a media event at its Menlo Park, CA headquarters this Tuesday. While some speculated that the social networking firm might be announcing its own smartphone, it turns out the announcement was about something bigger: personal search.

“This is one of the coolest things we’ve done in a while,” said CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who said that “Graph Search is a completely new way for people to get information on Facebook.”

A lot of people who use services like Facebook and Twitter don’t realize that social networking is about personal data. This information is usually about mundane developments in one’s life. Facebook, with more than a billion active users, is constantly trying to take advantage of this data, and wants to make the collated data accessible in a manner useful to both account owners and businesses. Called Graph Search, the new feature uses a combination of content and relationships on Facebook to generate meaningful results.

Facebook has always had a search function, which gave search results from within Facebook — or defaulted to Bing search when no information can be found from within the social network. However, this functionality did not offer any compelling feature until now.

With Graph Search, Facebook promises an enhanced user experience that is integrated with the user’s account, as well as those of friends, family and friends of friends. Each search does not use the whole Facebook database. Instead, it uses likes, shares and posts as parameters to determine relevance to the search, adding in factors like time and geo-location. Facebook Graph searches look like “friends in Los Angeles who like ice hockey”, or “Asian restaurants in Chicago which were visited by friends from out of town.”

The search functionality is supposed to use natural language cues to find relevant content, much like the well-lauded SIRI and even Google’s Google Now feature for android phones, which try to understand what a user wants to look for without the need for complicated commands and modifiers. So instead of using cryptic modifiers in your search string, you can simply ask Graph Search to show you “photos of my friends in New York in 2012” or something similar.

Big data

With a billion active accounts, Facebook has a lot of data in its hands, but has been actively trying to find the sweet spot in terms of monetizing this data. Users have been posting on Facebook for the last eight years. In terms of number of pictures posted daily, Facebook is now the biggest photo sharing site on the web.

One minor hurdle is the privacy concern amongst Facebook users. Facebook does promise to take into consideration an account’s privacy settings, which will be part of the search result parameters.

Facebook Graph is still in Beta, as early adopters would tell you. Opinions on the updated search functionality are mixed, so far. While potentially disruptive, some investors still don’t think it’s not something that will generate enough value and money for Facebook in the short term.

Still, Graph Search is a step in the right direction, and can compete with Google for searches where personal relevance is important, such as finding local businesses and establishments, or looking for content or photos from a set period in time. In terms of actual brick-and-mortar companies, this can also offer big benefits. For instance, you can send information or event invites to a focused list of accounts that satisfy a certain parameter (e.g., “friends who have visited Singapore in the past year”).

This new twist on search only shows that Facebook has the ability to play hardball in the search business for what’s around you (mobile) and who’s around you (social).

Featured image credits: CNet