How to search Facebook

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Searching social media for people and for what people have posted, "liked," etc., is now a critical task for a broad range of researchers, including journalists, police, private investigators, human resource departments, threat-assessment departments, recruiters, and marketers looking for prospects. A very significant portion of such searching is to follow what is being said about companies and their brands and to identify and follow opinions, trends, and sentiments. This article looks at searching the largest and most active social media site, Facebook.

Basic Facebook search functions

For researchers, most Facebook searches fall into one of two “needs” categories:

  1. identifying those people who have a particular characteristic or combination of characteristics, such as name, residence, occupation, etc.; and
  2. finding specific, or maximum amounts of, material regarding a specific individual. Facebook has its own search features described below, but alternative approaches discussed later can take you much further.

First, be aware that what will be returned in a Facebook search and the ranking of those results are very different from a Google (or Bing or Yahoo) search. Facebook emphasizes that “search results are based on your Facebook activity. Facebook search results aren’t influenced by activity off Facebook.” In another statement, Facebook adds that ranking is also based on "the activity of the Facebook community."

In Facebook’s search box you can enter names or topics and, to some degree, "natural language" statements such as "friends who live in Annapolis." Beyond cases such as that, natural language searching does not usually work well and certainly not for a query such as people who live in Annapolis and attended Salisbury University. Beyond the names that you retrieve, you are shown records that somewhere mention one or more of your search terms, usually arranged by category, such as People, Links, Photos, etc.

Personalized search suggestions 

When entering your terms in the search box, notice the search suggestions offered as you type. As a recent enhancement, Facebook now includes suggestions for topics, issues, and shared links that are of interest to large numbers of users. For example, after typing brexit, the following suggestions appear: brexit news, brexit latest news, brexit explained, brexit jokes, etc. When you select one of these suggestions, you see not just posts from friends, but also public posts from people with whom you are not "friended."

This may appear obvious, but if you are "investigating" a person and don’t want that individual to know it, search from an account other than your personal account. (You should already be aware that "It’s against the Facebook Community Standards to maintain more than one personal account." It is, however, permissible to set up a separate Facebook "Page." Pages are created for businesses, organizations, public figures, etc.)

Narrowing search results

Facebook offers two main ways to narrow your search results: a menu for narrowing by content type (posts, videos, etc.) and filters for specific characteristics of each specific content type.

  • Content Type—Near the top of search results pages, there is a menu for narrowing down your results by Posts, People, Photos, Videos, Marketplace, Pages, Places, Category, Groups, Apps, Events, and Links. For almost all of these, there are content-specific search filters.
  • Filter Results—On the left side of results pages are Facebook filter options, divided into six overall options. Under the Posts From option, you can choose Anyone, You, Your Friends, Your Groups and Pages, Public, or Choose a Source. The latter may be the most useful of all the filter choices since this is where you can locate all the posts on a specific topic from a specific individual. Search the topic, then narrow to the individual.

In the Post Type filter section, you can choose from All Posts or Posts You’ve Seen. The Posted in Group section gives options for Any Group, Your Groups, or Choose a Group. For results from a specific group, you can also go directly to the page for that group and use the search box found there. 

In the Tagged Location section, you can specify a location, and in the Date Posted section, you can choose a specific month and year. The tagged location and date options used together can be particularly helpful when investigating crimes, accidents, and other events.

Alternatives to Facebook’s Own Search Features

'Building your own URL’

In 2013, Facebook introduced what it called Graph Search. Graph enabled the user to search for multiple criteria at one time, in a (somewhat) natural language format. Graph Search, in a fairly transparent way, nicely offered both field searching and Boolean operations. It allowed users, for example, to enter in the search box, friends who live in Baltimore and work for McCormick. Unfortunately for serious searchers, in late 2015, Graph disappeared (to some degree out of Facebook concerns for privacy issues). Though the natural language part of the plan wasn’t perfect, Graph did work well in many situations.

The good news is that it was quickly recognized that, although Graph Search was gone, the retrieval coding that Graph used is still there. This coding can be taken advantage of and “invoked” by URLs that searchers can fairly easily construct and enter into the URL box of their browsers. These constructed URLs point your browser to Facebook and carry instructions to identify those records (Facebook pages) that contain specific combinations of criteria and/or content.

In a regular Facebook search you can enter multiple terms, but terms you enter are, for the most part, searched “free-text” through all parts of records. Facebook does not distinguish whether you are looking for Salisbury as the city of residence, a university, or part of a person or company’s name. Searching by URL can solve that problem.

Though readers might understand the URL constructing process from one fairly complex example, for clarity, I will lay out how it works using a few successively more-complex examples. (The first two, simplest, examples are actually for queries that would work reasonably well with a regular Facebook search. It is the more complex URLs that actually bring in field searching and Boolean.)

Note that your device needs to be logged on to some Facebook account in order for these URLs to work.

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