Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
MENLO PARK, Calif. – Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled a new search feature that’s designed to entice people to spend more time on its website and will put the social networking company more squarely in competition with Google and other rivals such as Yelp and LinkedIn.
Called “graph search,” the new service unveiled Tuesday lets users quickly sift through their social connections for information about people, interests, photos and places. It’ll 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 Inc. and Facebook Inc. 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,” said Gartner analyst Brian Blau. “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 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, the shares remain below their IPO price of $38. Investors seemed let down by Tuesday’s news, causing Facebook’s stock to slip 85 cents, or 2.7 percent, to close at $30.10.
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 in their feeds, 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 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 search for content that have been granted permission to see by their online connections, 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 be available only on Facebook’s website for now, and only in English.
Facebook’s decision to start its foray into search slowly reflects the formidable challenge that it’s trying to tackle. The “social graph,” as Facebook calls its trove of connections between people and things, is “big and changing,” Zuckerberg said. There are 240 billion photos on Facebook and 1 trillion connections.
Indexing all this, he said, is a difficult technical problem the company has been working on.
Although Facebook isn’t trying to fetch information across the Web as Google does, it’s clearly trying to divert traffic and ad spending from its rival. Facebook is hoping to do this by making it easier for its users to quickly find many of the things that are most important to them: movie, music and restaurant recommendations from friends and family; photo galleries of people they care about; and new connections to old friends and other people with common interests.
It’s the kind of personal data that has been difficult for Google to collect, partly because Facebook has walled off its social network from its rival’s search engine. Instead, Facebook has partnered with Microsoft Corp. to use its Bing search engine to power traditional Web searches done through its site. That partnership remains.
“For a certain set of searches, this is going to be far more powerful than Google,” said Ovum analyst Jan Dawson.
Facebook doesn’t 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,” Dawson said.