In a potential challenge to much larger rival Google (GOOG), Facebook said Tuesday that it's introducing new search tools that will let its 1 billion users scour the social network for information about people, photos, places and other interests.
The new "Graph Search" will show only information that has been posted publicly or shared with the person who is doing the search, according to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who acknowledged privacy concerns while calling the new service "one of the coolest things we've done in a while."
While the new "Graph Search" function is limited to searching within the social network, it goes beyond Facebook's earlier search tools to let people query the network for things they are interested in -- such as photos of a certain topic, or photos taken in a certain year, a list of friends who like "Game of Thrones" or a list of restaurants that are liked by friends who moved to San Francisco from India.
It will also rank the results -- for example, Zuckerberg said the tool will show photos in the order of how interesting they are, as determined by the number of "likes" and comments they have previously received. The
rankings also take into consideration how close the searcher is to other people on Facebook, based on how often they interact on the network.
Zuckerberg said the service was developed for users and does not yet have a business model for earning money. But in a possible hint at commercial applications, a Facebook engineer demonstrated how the service could be used by a job recruiter to search for NASA employees who live in a certain area.
Facebook also announced a closer partnership
with Microsoft's Bing search engine, which will provide search results from the web to augment searches on Facebook. Microsoft's Bing has struggled to gain traction against Google's search engine, which provides billions of dollars in advertising revenue for Google. While Zuckerberg said several times that he doesn't expect people to use Facebook as a tool to search the web, he acknowledged that could change over time.
The new search tool is being introduced gradually; Zuckerberg stressed that it's in "beta" mode and said it will initially be offered only to a few hundreds or thousand users. It won't be available on the company's mobile apps and will not be tied into the system that lets Facebook users "like" other web pages and services outside Facebook's network. While the company hopes to add more features in time, Zuckerberg said Graph Search is currently focused on four areas: people, places, photos and interests.
Zuckerberg also stressed that the company is sensitive to privacy concerns. Facebook has angered users in the past by introducing new services that seemed to expose personal information in ways that users never expected. Zuckerberg said that's why the company last month has added new tools to help users check the status of the photos and other content they have posted, so they can tell which items are available for public view and change the settings if they wish.
"We think this is an important question and we take this very seriously," said Zuckerberg, who spoke in a room packed with reporters and tech bloggers, while dressed in his signature hooded sweatshirt and jeans.
Facebook officials, however, added that the new search service makes it all the more important for users to check their privacy settings. Zuckerberg said Facebook has built in controls so if someone searches for, say, photos of Facebook employees, the results will only include publicly shared photos from people who have listed their employer information as public.
Speculation about Tuesday's announcement had surged in the tech world over recent days. While some thought the company might be working on its own smartphone, several analysts said a move into the search business was a logical next step for Facebook.
A search engine that combines friends' recommendations with information from around the Web would be useful for Facebook members, and it would help keep them from leaving the site to use Google or other search applications, Sterne Agee tech analyst Arvind Bhatia said.
"The more they can keep you engaged on their site," Bhatia said of Facebook, "the more that's good for their advertising business."
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