Facebook User Search: Ever wondered how Facebook is more social than others?

After Eli’s talk on TED and my recent article about the filter bubble I decided to dig a little deeper into Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm, which decides what Updates appear in your news feed. I found some more scientific background on how EdgeRank really works. Even though EdgeRank was first mentioned on Facebook F8 Live on April 21st in 2010 it is already mentioned in a footnote of the scientific paper “All friends are not equal: using weights in social graphs to improve search” by Sudheendra Hangal, Diana MacLean, Monica S. Lam and Jeffrey Heer all from Computer Science department at Stanford university.
Inspired by this paper I run a little test to compare user Search of Facebook and once (a long time ago) Germanys biggest social networrk StudiVZ. Not surprisingly Facebook clearly won the battle. But let me first give a brief overview on how social networks rose in Germany.

History of Facebook and StudiVZ

So in Germany we there was this Facebook clone – let’s call it StudiVZ – starting in late 2005. Due to the fact that hardly anyone knew of Facebook and StudiVZ started some great word of mouth marketing (and stole the entire design from Facebook) it spread very quickly and became THE social network in Germany. In 2007 / 2008 no one would have imagined how the most popular German Website could ever fall back. StudiVZ (being aquired by a traditional media company) tried to make advertising dollars. While Facebook started to gain real social network know how. Not surprisingly Facebook passed by StudiVZ within a couple of months while 2010.

The Experiment: How good is the user search on social networks?

A must have feature of every social networking site is the user search. So I wanted to test how good does the user search on both sites work. (already knowing that Facebook would easily win this battle) I thought of a person with a very common name that is not a friend of mine on ether of these social networking sites.
After a little bit of thinking I came to Sebastian Jung. On Facebook as well as on StudiVZ he is registered with his real Name. (along with about 140 other Sebastian Jungs in Germany) Sebstian was in my grade in high school together with 130 other students. I hardly know him.

Search for Sebastian Jung on StudiVZ:

Typing his name in StudiVZ brings up his profile to the 4th position. Lucky me that he has recently updated his StudiVZ profile which is to my knowledge the variable the user search results are sorted by. If he hadn’t done this he would have disappeared somewhere between those 140 other Sebstian Jung’s that have a StudiVZ profile with the same name.

Search for Sebstian Jung on Facebook:

Typing his name into Facebook search immidiately shows his profile on the first position. In my case this is particular interesting but let us first explore why Facebook does so well.

How does Facebook user search rank the results?

Of course the exact algorithm is secrete but the idea is easy. As everyone knows we can measure the distance between to people in a social network by the shortest path of people between those two people. Uff. Shortest path?!? What does this mean?
For Sebastian Jung and me this shortest path would be of length 1 since I have some friend from my old school that is a friend of Sebastian Jung. Which in turn means there is one person between Sebastian Jung an me.
For our German Chancellor and me the distance would probably be 3 (wild guess) but I think you get the point. So what facebook does is to sort all the Sebastian Jungs on the result Page according to their distance from me. Pretty smart isn’t it? But Facebook is probably even using a little bit more information. Let us assume I have 4 common friends with this Sebastian Jung and maybe 1 common friend with another Sebastian Jung. The distance in both cases would be 1. But the one I have more common friends with is still probably more relevant to me and will most probably be shown first.

Oh and why is this particular interesting for my case?

You can call me paranoid or something but I am still afraid that facebook knows to much about me if I tell them more about my friendships. That’s why I decided to have 0 friends on Facebook. Obviously Facebook is not only using actual friendships that exist but also the 120 friendshiprequests I have received so far and other knowledge (maybe people have uploaded my email address together with their address book) Anyway this experiment show that my fear obviously has a reason but it also shows that I clearly failed to protect my most sensitive data from Facebook.


  1. Still I am very convinced that Facebook’s success is due to the fact that these little things just silently work perfect in the background producing great user satisfaction.
  2. As I always say. You cannot steal an idea on the Internet. If you don’t understand the Idea you might have a short success but then you’ll fail because your product will just not be as good as your competitors product
  3. If you want to be successful on the Internet don’t focus on selling ads and making money in the first place. Look what the big players have been doing! Focus on user satisfaction. If your users are happy I am pretty sure the money and reward will come to you!
  4. Even though the pages look a like and StudiVZ is still copying features from Facebook they oviously don’t understand the essence of these features and what exactly makes them great. Otherwise after 5 years of operations they would be able to have a good running user search which should be the kernel of any social networking service.
  5. Much to learn and improve for my own social network Metalcon that has a crappy search function over all (-:
  6. 6. I still haven’t digged deeper into the EdgeRank Algorithm 🙁

I am happy to read about your comments and thoughts as well as your experiments to user search with Facebook and other social networks. What other (technical (!)) reasons do you think make Facebook the superior social network in comparison to sites like myspace, orkut, studiVZ, bebo,… ?

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