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


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, but try sorting through and find anything.

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.