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'It's About Time': Facebook Reveals New Search Feature

Jan 16, 2013
Originally published on January 16, 2013 8:47 am

Facebook has launched a new feature that will let its users search for more detailed information across the social network. Soon, you'll be able to find the restaurants and TV shows your friends like or see every picture they've taken at the Grand Canyon.

As much as users may like the new features, the company hasn't exactly been a Wall Street darling. So, the new feature may be less about you and me and more about Facebook's bottom line.

"It's about time," Nate Elliott, an analyst at Forrester Research, said about the new feature. "It should have been there all along."

Elliott said Facebook users have been frustrated for a while because they were unable to sort through all the content their friends put up. Unless you happened to be online when they posted, chances were good you were going to miss it. He called Facebook's previous search function "one of the worst search experiences online."

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated Tuesday what he calls "graph search" at the company's headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif.

He explained how one week he wanted to have a group of friends over to watch Game of Thrones. So, he typed in a query to graph search: "friends near Palo Alto like Game of Thrones." Their names popped up.

"This was great," Zuckerberg said. "I mean, I just clicked on a bunch of them, invited them over, and we had a small Dothraki party."

Zuckerberg was joined by Facebook software engineer Lars Rasmussen, who showed off how the new feature can be used to search photos. It can sort them by place, names and even years. Rasmussen typed in a query for photos of his friends before 1990. He laughed as old-school photos popped up.

"Suddenly, everyone is a child again," he said.

Facebook's Challenge

While Facebook might be catching up with this new feature, there are also strong economic incentives for getting it out. Analyst Elliott says the road to Facebook is filled with dead and dying social networks. Friendster and MySpace "got boring," Elliot said. People set up their social networks, and there was nothing to do.

Elliott said Facebook's growth is slowing. There's a limit to the number of new users it's going to draw. So, the future, he says, is keeping people more engaged.

"That's the constant concern for any social network is 'How do we make sure that people have lots of interesting things happening in their friend networks?' "

During the introduction of the new feature, Zuckerberg and his staff constantly referenced user privacy as if they were making a pre-emptive strike. Facebook has been dogged by privacy concerns since its inception. The company was investigated by the Federal Trade Commission and is still under an order that requires it to undergo an independent privacy audit every two years.

Facebook software engineer Tom Stocky explained how you can search for photos of yourself that other people have put up and tagged. He pulled up some photos of himself in a monster costume.

"Let's say for whatever reason I find these photos embarrassing," Stocky said. "Let's say I don't want them to appear in search. ... I'd love to have them removed from Facebook altogether."

Stocky clicked on a feature that let him remove the tags and then another feature that let him send a note to the user who posted them, asking to have them taken down.

'Open A Lot Of Users' Eyes'

Debra Aho Williamson, an analyst at eMarketer, said this feature may actually help users really understand how much information they've been sharing.

"That's going to open a lot of users' eyes," she said.

It might actually make people more active in managing their personal information, she said.

Facebook also showed off a partnership with the Microsoft search engine, Bing. If a user searches for a restaurant among his or her friends and can't find it, Bing will supplement with results from the open Internet.

For now, most analysts don't see Facebook's new feature as a direct threat to Google. Williamson says 75 percent of U.S. searches go through Google, which has access to much more information about individuals across the many platforms it owns — Android, Google Docs, Google+ and so forth.

Facebook is rolling out its new feature slowly over the next few months. Although "graph search" is currently only available on desktop computers, Zuckerberg indicated that the company is working on making it available on mobile devices. He also emphasized that the new feature is "in Beta." Improvements will be coming.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Facebook has launched a new search feature. It's designed to let its hundreds of millions of users find stuff - like the restaurants and TV shows that friends like or to see every picture they've taken at the Grand Canyon, for example. Facebook itself is unveiling this search engine as it goes on its own kind of search - a search for more revenue, after last year's disappointing public stock offering.

NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Facebook's now got more than a billion users around the world and it has all sorts of information about them - what they watch on TV, where they went to high school.

NATE ELLIOT: Facebook today has one of the worst search site experiences that you're going to find anywhere online.

SYDELL: Nate Elliot, analyst at Forrester Research. His reaction to the announcement of Facebook's new search feature is - well, it's about time.

ELLIOT: It's a little bit embarrassing for them that they haven't fixed it before now.

SYDELL: The company's CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, demonstrated the new search yesterday at the company's Silicon Valley headquarters. He's a "Game of Thrones" fan.

MARK ZUCKERBERG, CEO, FACEBOOK: And I wanted to invite some people over who wanted to watch it. But, I didn't know which of my friends who lived around me liked "Game of Thrones." So, I just put a query into graph search - friends - near Palo Alto like "Game of Thrones."

SYDELL: And up popped his friends who like the show. The new search also figures out who your best pals are.

FACEBOOK: At the top, that's my sister and that's her husband. And then a lot of the rest of the folks are sorted by how many mutual friends you have with the person or other signals that are in the Facebook system for how much you care about these different folks.

SYDELL: The new search will also sort through photos based on who took them, when, and where. No doubt many Facebook users will enjoy the new feature.

But, analyst Nate Elliot says Facebook had to do this because it's not growing as fast as it once did.

ELLIOT: So what Facebook has to think about now is, how do we keep those billion users very engaged?

SYDELL: Because if they aren't engaged, they might go somewhere else.

If you look back into the history of social networks, says Elliot, it takes more than getting people to sign up to be successful. Take Friendster - remember them?

ELLIOT: People came and set up their social networks and there was really nothing else happening. It got boring and they went away.

SYDELL: During the introduction of the new feature Zuckerberg and his staff constantly referenced user privacy - as if they were making a pre-emptive strike. Facebook been dogged by criticisms of its shifting privacy policies. The Federal Trade Commission has ordered the company to have a privacy audit every two years.

At yesterday's demo privacy was a big topic. The new search lets you see photos of yourself tagged by others. Facebook software engineer Tom Stocky searched and found embarrassing photos of himself dressed as a monster, but put up by someone else. With the new feature...

TOM STOCKY: It's untags me from those photos. And then the second thing is that it sends that person a message and says hey, would you please take these down?

SYDELL: The new feature will also let you search all publicly available information about anyone on Facebook. If it's public that you like "Game of Thrones" - strangers will find you more easily.

eMarketer analyst Debra Aho Williamson says this might make people more aware of how Facebook can compromise their privacy.

DEBRA AHO WILLIAMSON: Because up until now, there really hasn't been the ability to search for photos that your friends posted five years ago and now there is. That's going to open a lot of people's eyes.

SYDELL: Though Facebook is adding search, most analysts don't see it as a major threat to Google at this point.

The new search feature is going to be rolled out slowly over the next few months. CEO Zuckerberg says it's still in beta, and for now, it isn't available on mobile devices.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.