Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday unveiled a new search feature that is designed to entice people to spend more time on his company’s Web site and will put the world’s largest online social network more squarely in competition with Google and other rivals.
Called “graph search,” the new service lets users quickly sift through their social connections for information about people, interests, photos and places. It will help users who, for instance, want to scroll through all the photos their friends have taken in Paris or search for the favorite TV shows of all their friends who happen to be doctors.
Although Zuckerberg stressed that “graph search” is different from an all-purpose search engine, the expanded feature escalates an already fierce duel between Google and Facebook as they grapple for the attention of Web surfers and revenue from online advertisers.
“This could be another reason not to use Google and another reason to stay on Facebook for longer periods,” Gartner analyst Brian Blau said. “I don’t think Google is going to lose its search business, but it could have an impact on Google by changing the nature of search in the future.”
Facebook’s foray into search marks one of its boldest steps since its initial public offering (IPO) of stock flopped eight months ago amid concerns about the company’s ability to produce the same kind of robust earnings growth that Google delivered after it went public in 2004.
Although Facebook’s stock has rallied in recent weeks, it remains below its IPO price of US$38. Investors seemed let down by Tuesday’s news, causing Facebook’s stock to slip US$0.85, or 2.7 percent, to close at US$30.10. Google’s stock gained US$1.68 to close at US$724.93.
If the new search tool works the way Facebook envisions, users should be able to find information they want to see on their own instead of relying on the social network’s formulas to pick which posts and pictures to display, analysts said.
Until now, Facebook users were unable to search for friends who live in a certain town or like a particular movie. With the new feature, people can search for friends who, say, live in Boston who also like Zero Dark Thirty. And Facebook’s users will be able to enter search terms the same way that they talk, relying on natural language instead of a few stilted keywords to telegraph their meaning.
Only a fraction of Facebook’s more than 1 billion users will have access to the new search tool beginning on Tuesday because the company plans to gradually roll it out during the next year to allow time for more fine-tuning.
Not all the interests that people share on Facebook will be immediately indexed in the search engine either, although the plan is to eventually unlock all the information in the network while honoring each user’s privacy settings.
That means users can only see content that is available to them through other’s privacy settings, Zuckerberg said.
“Every piece of content has its own audience,” Zuckerberg said.
Though the company has focused on refining its mobile product for much of last year, the search feature will only be available on Facebook’s Web site for now, and only in English.
Facebook does not have plans to show additional ads as people use the new search tool, but analysts said that is bound to change.
“If the appropriate privacy protections are in place, this could be a significant boost in value that Facebook can provide to its users and, in time, that will provide some really valuable new advertising avenues for advertisers,” Ovum analyst Jan Dawson said.
Facebook now must prove it can master the intricacies of search and picking the right ads to show to the right people at the right time — complicated tasks that Google has honed during the past 14 years to establish itself as the Internet’s most powerful company. It currently produces 10 times more annual revenue than Facebook.