social media toolsAre you familiar with the term social graph? Can you easily describe what one is, and better yet, why they’re significant to the marketing of your business on the social web?

Understanding the concept of social graphs will not only enhance your proficiency with social media marketing today, it will also help you foresee emerging trends. This will significantly help you be fully prepared when new web technologies are launched.

The term social graph was first used a few years ago by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, specifically in reference to the Facebook platform. Your social graph is a digital map of your personal identity, your primary Facebook friends and everything you share with them.

That definition has since been expanded to include other platforms, such as Twitter, Flickr and even Google. So, to be clear, you have many overlapping social graphs. This social data is of great interest to businesses that are trying to connect with you, and should be of equal interest to you for reaching your future customers.

The social graph is a contextual matrix of relationships.

Facebook and the Open Graph

When Facebook launched sweeping changes to their platform on April 21, 2010, social graphs were suddenly thrust into the spotlight. That’s when Mark Zuckerberg coined a new term—Open Graph.

The objective of Facebook Open Graph is to integrate all of your social graphs—on Facebook, of course. This is accomplished through the Facebook API, which is a digital handshake that connects your Facebook identity, connections and content with Facebook pages and outside websites and blogs. You probably know it best in its most popular form as the Facebook Like button.

Facebook Like creates communities of like-minded people.

When you Like a Facebook page or site that has embedded the Facebook Like feature, you’re instantly connected with everyone else who has Liked that site. You have effectively joined a new community, and now you have the benefit of many new associations.

Unfortunately, the positive side of connecting businesses with consumers in this way was overshadowed by the privacy uproar associated with Open Graph. That has since been remedied by allowing you to control what you share, if anything, with your new community.

If you can integrate millions of social graphs that are rich with personal data, you have a Frankenstein’s monster of a database that is infused with social context, and therefore, human-like qualities.

Similar to Frankenstein, the Open Graph is not really human, but it has the possibility to come awfully close as more social data is stitched together. The power of a database that truly emulates human behavior is undeniable. Whatever happens in the future, one thing we’re sure of is that day in April was a game-changer for social marketers.

How Social Graphs Tell a Story

Searchable content has always been the foundation of the Internet. Bill Gates is credited with stating that “content is king”—and at the time he said that (he wrote it first), he was right. However, that was before social networking changed the game of search to what it is today; one where context is king.

As your messaging or content on the social web is shared, it gathers context and builds nodal relationships that tell a story. By understanding this, you can more effectively enhance your social graph by creating useful content that favorably represents who you are and what you do best with your expertise.

Context—Social networks are all about context. Whom you associate with tells a great deal about you. Context not only tells us who you are, but by associations and comparisons, who you are not. You may be very similar to colleagues you associate with, but there is enough data to discern a difference. That association may be what helps you to be discovered, but it is the distinction that will get you hired.

Nodes—When you map out your social connections, you’re essentially connecting the dots. Think of these dots as nodes on a complex matrix. The more nodes there are on your social graph, the more readily you can be defined, and therefore located. Nodes are landmarks or junction points on a map that helps users navigate the unknown and find exactly what they need or want, which ideally is your business.

Sharing—Sharing on the social web is what creates nodes. If you share content that someone finds useful, they’re likely to share it with their community, thereby connecting you with their friends—which creates even more nodes.

Why Social Search Is a Game-Changer

When Facebook introduced its Open Graph, Mark Zuckerberg made the statement that if we can take the social graphs of a multitude of social networking or sharing sites, we could “create a web that’s smarter, more social, more personalized, and more semantically aware.”

A semantically aware web takes advantage of relationships and associations. You’ve already experienced how social semantic search works if you’ve made multiple purchases on Amazon. They understand your preferences and they cross-link them with the preferences of people whose social graphs are similar to yours.

As new technologies are integrated with this growing body of social data, you can expect search capabilities to rise to breathtaking levels, giving more accurate, more personal and timelier search results.

Here are some steps you can take to create a representative social graph:

Create Social Objects—In addition to relationships with people, you also have relationships with objects that further define your social graph. Social objects are anything that is searchable on the web. This obviously includes people, but also images, videos and music clips. All of these objects interact to tell a story.

Fill in the Gaps—As social graphs are merged, they become mutually more descriptive and complete. Yet for most of us, our social graphs are largely empty space. This is why it’s important to be actively engaged and share on the social networks, both on a personal and professional level. When you do this, you’re managing your destiny by building your social graph, which is always best accomplished with your direct involvement.

Consider Location and Time—Social graphs are digital maps that lead us to places. As social graphing is accomplished more frequently in real time and location, better decisions become possible. While there may a number of businesses like yours that are suited to someone doing a search, the person is more likely to choose you if you’ve recently engaged in conversations that keep your social graph fresh and relevant.

What This Means for Business

At the recent Web 2.0 Summit, Mark Zuckerberg said, “Over the next five years every industry will have to redesign itself around social.” This is a statement that I believe holds a great deal of merit. Businesses need to realize that social is not just changing how you should market, but even how you’ll be doing business in the future if you expect to prosper.

It remains to be seen whether Open Graph will become a reality. While the technology is available, there are political and economic boundaries that prevent it from readily happening. Nevertheless, what’s trending is typically going to happen at some point in the future.

Here are some likely possibilities:

The Future Web Is More Personal

Let’s face it, people are interested in people. Human interactions of all kinds add context that illuminates, clarifies and cuts through the clutter. There is no question that semantic search will transform our roles as both consumers and business professionals.

The Future Web Is More Intelligent

Every piece of data that gets added to every social graph makes the entire system more intelligent. The more the system knows, the more discerning it will be. It becomes a better decision-maker. What is Microsoft’s Bing, which also happens to power Facebook search? A decision engine.

The Future Web Is More Open

Social graphs overlap and extend across the globe.

Imagine a web that has perfect access to information—a social web that is a digital copy of our physical world.

While this may sound like science fiction to some, could you have imagined 10 years ago that you would someday be carrying a handheld device that would help you find a business, navigate your travel there in real time, let you know which of your friends has recently visited and what recommendations they left for you?

What do you think? Is science fiction now becoming science? What challenges and possibilities do you see? Let us know your comments in the box below.

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  • Interesting article Jeff.

    I should add that the purpose and context of both social and open graphs is to deliver relevant advertising.

    When Zuckerberg talks about these things he’s talking about it from that perspective. Context is king because they can better target your proclivities towards one product or another.

    hope that was useful 🙂

  • Dino – Indeed social search capabilities will rise to breathtaking levels. I’m sure most small business don’t think of social search from that perspective but should, as targeted Facebook ads are still extremely affordable right now. And who knows how long that will last.

    To your point – I agree that a more effective user experience always leads to more lucrative advertising possibilities.


  • “When you do this, you’re managing your destiny by building your social graph, which is always best accomplished with your direct involvement.”

    This is a great sentence, since it emphasizes your active role in social media marketing and networking. I share my comments with friends openly, knowing that the relationships and connections being formed as a result will carry my name and product offerings to places they never would have been before.

  • This is a great post. The sociology behind the programming of Facebook is extremely interesting. Ultimately, if people want to have a richer experience on the web, they will have to come to grips with the amount of information Facebook has about us. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Facebook just needs to be more transparent about how they deal with our data. I’m all for instant personalization!

  • Nick – Sociology – that’s a good way of looking at this because it is so fluid. And yes, whether we like it or not, instant personalization is going to happen. John Lennon was ahead of his time when he said -instant karma is gonna get you. 🙂


  • Exactly David – Too often we hear, Gee, I’m not getting results. Social networking and marketing is like exercise – you get results by actively doing it, not thinking about it.

    Thanks for making that more clear.


  • Natascha Thomson

    Thanks for the blog. Very well written and informative.

    Are you saying that companies should build a social graph or individuals? As an individual, I don’t see the value of my social graph, rather only the scary side of people being able to take on my identity….please elaborate. How would I leverage my social graph in results driven manner? It sounds like I can be targeted better in search by marketers like me :-).



  • Jeff,

    Good article! Though I think it might be too techno for the mainstream reader.

    I plan to include a link to your post in my next “Media Muffins” email newsletter.



  • Jeff
    This is a very informative and well-written post. I had not come across the term ‘social graph’ before, but as a fairly new user of (some forms of) social media, I have been experiencing these social graphs in action. Your post has helped to put the experience into context.

  • Natascha – Let’s assume you and I both practice the same type of work and have equal qualifications.

    The differentiating factor for someone that needs to choose between us may be that they are more comfortable working with a woman, due to the nature of their client base. You win. Or I may be local and they like that convenience. I win. Look at Mark Zuckerberg, he tends to favor people from Harvard. I didn’t study there, so I suppose I’ll never work at Facebook. 🙂

    All of these connections, associations, and nuances are personal – they add contextual “flavor” so to speak, that define us and ultimately make us more desirable by our ideal clients.

    While we like to think we are objective in our business decisions, we usually aren’t. Applying the 80/20 rule to business decisions, we quickly filter down to handful of choices objectively, then we use our gut to make the final decision – and that gut is intuitive and often driven by personal criteria.

    Does that help?


  • Thanks Keri – I look at this as both complex and simple at the same time. It takes some time up front, after that there is no need to look back. Regardless, it’s so foundational to getting results with social media that its worth taking the time to fully digest.

    And I’m glad you did!


  • Debbie – For being fairly new you kinda hit the nail on the head. Most people have not heard of social graphs, but once you understand them you realize how vital they are to effectively using social media.


  • Have any tools emerged that access the social graph? Right now its a closed book for marketers. We’re all yelling the social graph is great and will revolutionize the web but the only ones with access to the “real” graph are FB. Reminds me of the magician at the fair calling a crowd (of marketers) and we all excitedly ganging up around the (social graph) crystal ball with nothing shown. Sure we’re are all friending and liking and building our own little bit of the graph and the promise to marketers is a rich treasure trove of actual actionable psychographic profiles with a degree of precision that will seem frightening to the oldies. Okay you have me slack jawed and drooling. Now how do I get at it?

  • Good job, Jeff. The only immediate challenge I see is the need to redesign or enhance the way we secure data/identity/open graph. The more secure people feel the more they will adopt it. This doesn’t apply to young people. It is already second nature to them.

  • Fascinating post, and to Keri’s point, it is very technical. The term “social graph” is completely new to me. But then again, 10 years ago, we were all trying to get our heads around terms like “search engine optimization” which now seems old hat. Maybe 10 years from now, we’ll all be referring to “leveraging your social graph” as a “traditional marketing marketing method.” 😉

  • Great insight Tomas – In fact just yesterday I made a post on my blog about how the kids in college now that grew up with Facebook are seamless with all of this – it’s natural to them. They don’t see separation between the social networks and their everyday life – and that is going to make for some interesting influences when they join the workforce in a few short years!


  • I’m not sure you can now – or will ever be able to. Google naturally wants to access the data Facebook is collecting, and Twitter too. And they all have their reasons that are predominantly associated with search. For you and me, I suppose have the awareness is most important – which was essentially the point of this article.

    Armed with that definitely gives you a leg up on your competition, doesn’t it? 🙂


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  • Really useful information (as usual!) …thank you for posting this!

    I do have one tiny bone to pick – Sumner Redstone, the long time head of Viacom, is widely credited as the source of the famous adage “content is king”.

  • Chip – My understanding has always been that Bill Gates is widely credited with coining “content is king.” Nevertheless, I wanted to verify that so I did my research and found that article of reference which is linked to his name. However, you are correct that Sumner also claims ownership of that phrase on his Wiki page.

    Hmm… Do you have any reference on this? I’m interested.


  • Eric

    Great post. I think of this and think that the customer to a business, or possibly healthcare entity or provider, could essentially do their own type of social graphing. How many times have you heard of someone asking, “Have you Googled yourself?”
    I see the possibility for the consumer to build their own social graphing (without really understanding what they are doing) by looking for people on fb, twitter, Google, Youtube, etc.
    While a tool would be helpful, indeed, we can do some ourselves. A lot of companies that hire already do to some extent.

  • Mr. Suspicious

    Social graph = spying! While it may benefit business, it will ultimately be the doom of personal privacy for the individual. And it’s just creepy! I don’ t want a computer program making decisions for me based solely on my previous activity, I want the information so I can make my own decisions thank you very much.

  • D Prados

    This was a very informational post. I am a thriving Entreprenuer and this applies to everything i do Artists Development, PR Events and Media (Radio & Video). I am very interested in learning more. As you said it has become second nature the younger generation where as they know how to influence there friends but posting comments and creating a social graph in essence. I believe Adapting is key. I am definitly applying this stratagy in my daily marketing stratagies. Thank You Jeff!

  • Learning yourself of the semantics can enhance your knowledge of how to market more effectively with social media.

  • Thanks for the post Jeff, very informative.

    It’s such a massive shift in thinking and consumer insight for so many businesses and this outlines it really well.

  • Brigid – It certainly is. Much more to come on this topic I suspect. 🙂


  • D – Indeed you can really use this to your advantage. The truth is if we just go about our day doing what we do best the social graphs will take care of themselves …. well, that combined with a little bit of social media savvy. 🙂


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  • that means your search will depend on your social graph