MENLO PARK -- Facebook revealed a new search function Tuesday that will let its 1 billion users scour the social network for photos and information, while providing the company with lucrative new ways to sell advertising and a powerful weapon to challenge the Internet dominance of its much larger rival, Google (GOOG).
While the new "Graph Search" function is limited to searching within the social network, it goes beyond Facebook's earlier search tools and lets the company deliver more useful results from its
Demonstrating the new tool for reporters at Facebook's headquarters, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said several times that it's an "early stage" product whose focus is limited -- for now. But he couldn't resist adding: "This is one of the coolest things that we've done in a while."
And while the company said it has no immediate plans for making money from the new tool, industry experts said it represents a major step in Facebook's efforts to compete with other online ad platforms, from industry giant Google to small but growing companies like Yelp,
"It's the first real shot in the search war between Facebook and Google," said Chris Winfield, co-founder of online marketing agency BlueGlass Interactive.
Google has also been expanding its ability to deliver ads based on users' location and friends' recommendations, Winfield noted. But Google's social network, Google+, is much smaller than Facebook and Google's search engine has no access to most of Facebook's network.
Mountain View-based Google currently dominates the search advertising business, garnering nearly 75 percent of the $17.6 billion worth of search ads sold in the United States last year, according to research firm eMarketer. Facebook brought in about $4.2 billion in ad sales last year, mostly by targeting users' likes rather than specific search queries.
Facebook's new service could "change the way people think about search," predicted Brian Blau, an analyst for the Gartner tech research firm. He added: "You know Facebook will figure out how to monetize this."
For now, the new tool will let Facebook users search for results in four categories, which the company has dubbed "photos, people, places and interests." Users can refine or narrow their searches in a variety of ways -- for example, they can type in a request for photos of a certain person, or pictures that were taken in a certain city or year. They can ask for a list of Facebook friends who like "Game of Thrones" or a list of restaurants that are liked by friends in San Francisco who lived previously in India.
Anticipating privacy concerns, Zuckerberg said Graph Search will show only information that has been posted publicly or shared with the person who is doing the search. But he and other Facebook officials acknowledged the new search tool makes it all the more important for users to check their privacy settings for everything they post.
At least some users may still be alarmed at learning their posts and photos can be searchedby anyone. Inevitably, said Blau,"there will be some surprises."
Facebook is offering the new tool to just a few thousand users initially, so the company can gather feedback before expanding the program.
Each user will see different results, depending on what their friends have chosen to share with them, Zuckerberg said. In addition, Facebook has developed algorithms to rank the results -- so users will see the "best" available photos first, as determined by the number of likes and comments they have previously received.
Facebook's algorithms also try to factor in how "close" the searcher is to other people, by giving a higher value to results from people with whom the searcher frequently interacts on Facebook.
Those features make the new search tool extremely useful, at least for Facebook members whose friends post prolifically on the network, said Rebecca Lieb, an industry analyst with the Altimeter Group. She said it will let Facebook members pick the most useful information from among the torrent of posts and updates that appear in their regular newsfeed.
While the company did not announce plans for selling new ads, Lieb said that's likely to come. "If you search for hotels in Barcelona, or coffee shops in Barcelona, or romantic restaurants in Barcelona," she added, "then I think we can safely say that Facebook might eventually draw some conclusions and push certain ads to you, in the same way that Google and Yahoo (YHOO) do."
Zuckerberg said that Facebook's new service should be viewed differently from traditional Web search. But he also announced an expanded partnership with Microsoft, whose Bing search engine will provide results from the Web for users who want to search beyond the social network, while they're on Facebook.
Analysts say companies like Facebook and Google are increasingly trying to meet a variety of needs, so users won't stray to rival sites.
Contact Brandon Bailey at 408-920-5022; follow him at Twitter.com/BrandonBailey.