Will Its Fancy New Search Engine Finally Make Facebook Useful?

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Jan. 15 2013 10:10 PM

Is Facebook Finally Useful?

How the social network's new search engine could change the way you use the Web.

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As you play with the engine, you quickly find its limits. At the moment, Facebook only recognizes a few kinds of objects (among them restaurants, hotels, TV shows, and movies) and a small number of verbs. I found myself wishing that it was more expansive: If I could ask it for “running shoes liked by people who have run marathons,” I’d be able to get the perfect sneakers, and if it could answer “cameras used by my friends who take the best photos,” I’d never have to consult a tech reviewer again. Facebook also can’t do negation. To find a dentist who might be kind to scaredy cats, I’d like to type in “dentists liked by people who don’t like horror movies.” But that’s not possible today.

These limitations shouldn’t be permanent, though. When I ran some of these queries by Lars Rasmussen, one of the lead engineers on the search engine, he said expanding the pool of nouns and verbs is the project’s long-term goal. There’s no technical reason why Facebook couldn’t answer questions about thousands or maybe millions of kinds of objects one day.

But there is one social hurdle: People might not want their likes and dislikes to be searchable. The new search engine obeys all of Facebook’s privacy rules—it will only show you data that you’re allowed to see. That means it will get more useful as more people share more information with a wider audience. And if people make more stuff private, the engine will be a bust.

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“There’s a question about whether the very presence of a search engine will make people share more or less,” Rasmussen said. You could imagine either scenario: Now that your info is searchable, you might be more reluctant to like stuff or to make your likes public, because you don’t want random people to find you in their search results. On the other hand, Rasmussen says, if you know your data is going to be used to recommend your favorite places to others, you might be more tempted to compulsively like or check-in to places you think your friends should know about.

Rasmussen suggested this second scenario is more likely—after he found a dentist using the search engine, he says he “felt so thankful to my friends” for liking the dentist that he felt compelled to like stuff too, as a way to pay them back with good suggestions. But Rasmussen works at Facebook, so of course he’s given to liking stuff. (That, by the way, explains why Facebook’s cafe shows up as the top restaurant in all of Palo Alto and San Francisco. I know many people who work at Facebook, and because they’re all compulsive likers, their collective favorite lunch spot ranked highly for me. In this case, Facebook’s algorithm worked correctly, but because the data in my network is skewed by Facebook employees, it gave me a bad answer. If more people beyond Facebook liked more stuff, I’d have gotten a place with wider appeal.)

Facebook’s search engine brings its rivalry with Google into stark relief, especially when you consider that Facebook is using Bing as a fallback—when it can’t find you good social results, it shows you Web results from Bing. As it is today, Facebook’s new search shouldn’t send anyone at Google into a panic. No one is going to use this as a substitute for good old Web search. If anyone should be worried about Facebook’s search right now, it’s Yelp, Tripadvisor, LinkedIn and other specialty social and review sites.

But today’s Facebook search is only the first version, and as long as users cooperate, it’s bound to improve dramatically. It’s wise to remember, too, that Facebook doesn’t have to beat Google’s search engine to hurt Google as a business. If Facebook search becomes only the second most useful site on the Web, it would add to the social network’s existing role as the Web’s biggest time-waster. In other words, if Facebook perfects its vision of search, the social network would be fun and useful, all in one. That would be a worth a lot of billions.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.