MENLO PARK -- Facebook's launch of a new way to search for photos and information from among its more than 1 billion users may set off a mad scramble inside the headquarters of its competitors and could spur other Silicon Valley companies to quickly roll out their own improved search functions.
"If you're a Facebook competitor, you have to seriously consider how to respond to this by improving your own search paradigms," Brian Blau, research director in consumer technologies for Gartner, said after Facebook's announcement Tuesday. "There's no immediate threat today but it's definitely going to have an effect."
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg clearly challenged Internet giant Google (GOOG) on Tuesday with his announcement of the beta rollout of Facebook's new Graph Search function, which will allow users to quickly and more easily find photos, restaurant reviews and other information from among their Facebook friends and other users.
But other competitors, such as Yelp and Foursquare that rely on user reviews to find local products, services and entertainment, also "could be threatened," said Rebecca Lieb, an industry analyst with the Altimeter Group who received a Facebook briefing on Graph Search a day before Zuckerberg's announcement.
"They're looking at this with some interest and trepidation because Facebook really is the 900-pound gorilla in the social networking space," she said.
Andreas Pouros, chief operating officer at the Greenlight digital marketing agency, called Facebook's Graph Search "innovative and powerful, and will allow people to search within Facebook, albeit restricted to what they can see and read right now. It allows the user to search across people, places and interests using structured queries, e.g., 'friends who like Star Wars and Harry Potter,' or more usefully perhaps 'which restaurants do my friends like in London.' Ordinarily the user would ask that question by posting it on their wall, now the tools are there to allow the user to just search."
Like other analysts, Pouros suspects that the introduction of Graph Search will lead more businesses to flock to Facebook in order to be found and reviewed, and hopefully "liked" by Facebook users.
But it's "unclear at this stage if or how Facebook will monetize Graph Search," Pouros said in a statement.
With more businesses on the social network, Facebook users will have near instant access to more information, such as restaurant menus, Lieb said.
"This might be a good reason for brands to go onto Facebook," she said. "Right now there's no way for brands to directly promote themselves. But you can almost bet there will be advertising around this."
Zuckerberg told reporters Tuesday that Facebook will spend at least the next year fine-tuning Graph Search so the effect on Facebook's competitors will not be immediate, Blau said.
"I don't think any one search term will take out any one business," he said. "But companies like Yelp and companies like Google are going to have to work harder to keep people on their sites."
Contact Dan Nakaso at 408-271-3648. Follow him at Twitter.com/dannakaso.
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