Facebook Graph Search turns 'Likes' into searchable data

MENLO PARK— Putting hardware rumors to rest, Facebook didn’t announce a branded phone Tuesday. And it didn’t even launch a dedicated mobile initiative that would have remedied the company’s ability to make money on smartphones and tablets. But Facebook did go straight after Google’s bread and butter: You can finally search through the massive piles of information, photos, music, "likes," and other data on the social networking giant's servers.

The new feature is called Graph Search, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg dubbed it the "third pillar" of Facebook behind the site's News Feed and Timeline features. Within the next few weeks, a few hundred thousand users in the U.S. will get a chance to use the new search functions. You can sign up for the Graph Search beta program at the bottom of this page.

"We're giving people the power and the tools they need to search through the content on the site," Zuckerberg said.

For example, users can now search for all their friends in their hometown that use the site, a relatively simple task that couldn't be done before on Facebook. The site now hosts content from nearly a billion people, including 240 billion photos.

Zuckerberg stressed that Graph Search is not the same thing as Web search, which is, of course, rival Google's main business. One difference is that Graph Search does not use keywords. It's a structured search, where users can type in phrases such as "friends of friends who like Star Wars," or "Friends of Pete who went to Stanford," or "restaurants in New York my friends liked."

There's also a "Refine Your Search" box on the right of the page that helps improve search queries. Using this, you can broaden or narrow an existing search, such as asking the query to return only single males (as opposed to all males) in a people search.

The results page shows pictures of people or places that match the query, along with a set of key facts about the person or place.

Photo and video searches

If you want to search for a certain type of photo on Facebook, you can now type in a phrase like "photos my friends took in Paris," and the tool will return a grid of photos that fit that description. The photos are clickable to make them full-sized, and clicking each picture also shows all the comments people made about the photo.

Believe it or not, until now you could not do a search for all the photos you've "Liked" over the years. That's done now with a simple "photos I like" query.

Users can also search for videos hosted on Facebook. A simple search would be "videos of TV shows that my friends liked." This will return a page with videos liked by your friends, arranged in a grid, which might end up being a powerful recommendation engine.

Users can also do more esoteric searches. Facebook demonstrated a search for "videos liked by people who like Mitt Romney." A grid of playable videos appeared, along with some meta information about the videos.

Business searches: The new Yelp?

The search phrase "dentists liked by my friends" will return a page full of dentists with appropriate friends' comments, such as "Dr. Jones is especially good at managing pain, and I hate, hate, hate pain!" You can also "Like" the dentist from the search results page, and clicking an icon brings up a map to the dentist's office.

Facebook also demonstrated a search reading "restaurants liked by graduates of the Culinary Institutes of San Francisco," a creative way to find out about the best restaurants in town.

Potential privacy issues

Facebook is no stranger to privacy issues, so the company took pains Tuesday to spell out the privacy implications for Graph Search. The company stressed that the search will return only the photos that you already had permission to access on Facebook.

Zuckerberg said Facebook will soon place a note on users' pages that explains the new tool and helps users understand what others can see of their content by using Graph Search. The search tool can also help users locate embarrassing photos of themselves on Facebook and take them down. If that doesn't work, users can ask other users to untag them in offending photos or remove the photos in question.

Bing search and mobile ads

Almost as an afterthought, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook is also bringing the Bing Web search tool onto Facebook.

"I don't think people are going to start coming to Facebook to do Web search because of this, but it does give you a really nice tool to use in case you can't find what you need on Facebook," Zuckerberg said.

Zuckerberg said Facebook is also working on tackling the challenge of placing ads on mobile platforms such as phones and tablets; the company's research shows that 37 percent of Facebook users are accessing the site via mobile devices. "Some of our best engineers are working on mobile," he said.

The business of search

One thing Facebook is being (characteristically) quiet about is the potential revenue that will result from these new search functions.

The act of performing a search on Facebook is a powerful expression of interest or intent—an expression that advertisers would love to capture and use. How? The possibilities are vast. If a user searched for "vehicles liked by my friends," an automobile company might pay Facebook (a lot) to place ads for cars on the user's Facebook page.

Advertisers might eventually pay Facebook for users' search data, then use that to place advertising in front of the user on another site using cookies, as well. Facebook representatives here said that none of the search data will be used to drive advertising in any way and that no advertising will appear around user searches.

But this could change in the future, and it very likely might. Now a publicly traded company, Facebook continues to look for new ways to make money from the vast amount of personal data stored in its servers.

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