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

NPR icon by Laura Sydell
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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 that Facebook users have been frustrated for a while because they were unable to sort through all the content their friends put up. Unless you happen 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 into 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 may be catching up with this new feature, there are also strong economic incentives for getting it out. Analyst Elllott 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 that 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."

Stockly 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.

She says she thinks it might actually make people more active in managing their personal information.

Facebook also showed off a partnership with the Microsoft search engine, Bing. If a user searches for a restaurant among their 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 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 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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