What You Need to Know About Facebook Graph Search

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Happy New Year and welcome to 2013.

From the standpoint of online security and privacy and social media, 2013 is getting off to a start by continuing what is an increasingly common tradition: a new Facebook “feature” that’s causing all sorts of privacy worries.

As we start of the new year with this new feature coming out, let’s take some time to understand what this new feature is and what you need to be aware of as a social media marketer.

The latest feature is what Facebook is calling “Graph Search”. While we’re all familiar with web searches through Google, Yahoo or Bing, “Graph Search” represents a different kind of search. And it’s this difference that is at the root of the concerns expressed.

With Graph Search, Facebook is creating a search engine that searches just Facebook. This search engine pulls information from Facebook profiles and pages such as likes, check-ins, posts and comments. Searches are limited to only what you can see and are connected to on Facebook. In this way it does respect privacy. Where there’s a potential issue with Graph Search is how it makes it easier to gather information. This new capability can lead to some surprising and unexpected results.

Facebook Graph Search first makes searching easier by supporting more real world questions. Facebook’s own examples show searches like “Music my friends like” or “People who like cycling”. This makes it easier to look for real information because you don’t have to try and guess what the search engine needs from you to get your results.

Once you’ve entered your search, Facebook Graph Search gives you lists of profiles and pages which you have access to that answer your question. Because results are conditioned by what you have access to, results are highly personalized: if you can see a page that I can’t, it will be in your results but not mine even if we ask the exact same question.

Clearly this can be very helpful. If I’m going to visit New York and I ask “Friends who live in New York”, that’s going to be much more useful than a Google search.

But technology is just a tool and can be used for bad as well as good. As one example has shown, I can just as easily ask Graph Search for “Spouses of Married People who like Ashley Madison [A site dedicated to helping married people connect for illicit affairs]”. If anyone whose information I can see includes a like or other connection to Ashley Madison (and yes, they do have a Facebook page) then I’ll see their profile in response to my question.

For organizations, Graph Search has the potential to be very alarming in another way: through the actions of its employees and those connected to it. Another example shows the results of the question “Current employers of people who like Racism” and the results that include some major corporations and groups. Most alarmingly for these organizations, the problem is outside their social media control: the results here are driven not by the organizations’ Facebook presence, but rather by the pages of people who have listed those organizations as an employer.

Clearly, Facebook Graph Search can be a powerful tool for both good and bad. But what can you do about it as a social media marketer to mitigate the risks around the bad?

First, the good news is that Graph Search isn’t yet broadly available: it’s still in limited testing (you can get it by asking to join the wait list on the Facebook Graph Search page). So you have time to understand Graph Search and take steps to prepare for it. But understand that just because you don’t have Graph Search doesn’t mean your information isn’t included in it already. During this testing period, this is very much a case of “you can’t see them but they can see you” with it. So you want to look into this immediately.

As an individual concerned for your own privacy and Facebook page, you should take steps to ensure that your information is only viewable by those you really want to see it. You should also take time to go through your timeline and remove posts you don’t want to show up in this new search capability. The same is true for your likes: go through and remove those you don’t want to be viewable. There’s an excellent step-by-step tutorial on steps you can take to prepare here.

As a social media manager concerned for the reputation of your organization, the steps are less clear. Obviously, locking down the privacy settings to just “Friends” isn’t going to be an option. But everything you do for your own page in terms of reviewing and removing posts and likes applies. But, most worrisome, there’s essentially nothing you can do to mitigate the risks around the actions of your employees and supporters.

You can’t prevent an employee or supporter from “liking” something that is potentially embarrassing like racism. And at the time of this writing, it’s not clear that you as a manager would be able to identify what employee or member is causing you to turn up in results. And it’s also a question if you have the right to take any action as an employer around this if you could identify them: I leave that to the legal experts on human resources.

For now, it would seem, your best actions to mitigate this risk are to emphasize whatever human resources policies you have regarding behavior, diversity, and memberships and be prepared to respond if someone comes out with a claim related to a Graph Search.

In a way, Graph Search represents a truly new thing in terms of what it can do. And so we should all expect there to be bumps and hiccups as we all learn what it means and how to use it. We can also expect refinements, tools, and changes over time as well.

This sort of uncertainty is to be expected when you’re on the leading edge of technology (or more accurately, the bleeding edge as we like to say). An unfortunate thing about Facebook is that they don’t give a lot of control over whether you want to be on the leading edge or not: we all get to go at once. This is why we see what is becoming a regular event with massive new changes coming out, broad worry, concern and complaint. And, in some cases, a rolling back or adjustment based on outcry. These days this drill does happen every 2 – 4 months and shows no signs of abating. Unfortunately if you’re going to be a presence on Facebook you should count this a regular occurrence and risk and factor that into your plans accordingly.

Christopher Budd
This monthly Social Media & Online Security column is contributed by Christopher Budd. Christopher works for Trend Micro, an Internet security company, and is an expert on communications, online security, and privacy. Christopher combines a former career as an Internet security engineer with his current career in communications to help people bridge the gap between the technical and communications realms and “make awful news just bad.” Before Trend Micro, he worked as an independent communications consultant and, prior to that, as a ten-year veteran of the security response group at the Microsoft Corporation. +Christopher Budd
Christopher Budd


Communications professional focused on online security/privacy, technology, social media and crisis communications.
@GavinDonovan @marknca @LinkedIn seems to always be trying to be more than it is. Reminds me of @google and Google+ - 1 month ago
Christopher Budd

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