Facebook's next big thing: search

Somini Sengupta / New York Times News Service /

Facebook on Tuesday took a stab at cracking a big, elusive problem of its own making: how to help its one billion users find what they’re looking for in the jumble of posts, pictures and blue thumbs-up “likes” they share every day.

At an event at company headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder and chief executive, announced a tool the company had spent over a year honing. He called it “graph search,” and said it would be available to a limited number of Facebook users on Tuesday — in the “thousands”— and gradually rolled out to the rest. It would enable Facebook users to search their social network for people, places, photos and things that interest them.

That might include, Zuckerberg offered, Mexican restaurants in Palo Alto that his friends have “liked” on Facebook or checked into — though not status updates as yet. The tool might be used to find a date, or a job, Facebook executives said. “Graph search is a completely new way to get information on Facebook,” Zuckerberg said.

What he didn’t say, but which was clear, was how it would try to elbow out other companies that allow you to search for other things — LinkedIn for jobs, Yelp for restaurants, Amazon for gifts to buy for a friend and, of course, Facebook’s biggest rival on the Web, Google, which dominates Web search. Facebook is staking its bet on the sheer volume of data that it has access to; it is hoping that its users will find what they’re looking for on Facebook itself, without having to go to the rest of the Web.

And that is how Zuckerberg distinguished Facebook search from Google search, which sends you to other sites. The Facebook search tool is meant to keep you inside Facebook itself.

“Web search is designed to take any open-ended query,” Zuckerberg said. “Graph search is designed to take a precise query and return to you the answer, not links to other places where you get the answer.”