MENLO PARK -- Facebook's new social-network search engine won glowing reviews Wednesday from some industry analysts and tech reviewers, while falling flat with those who were hoping for more.
The new tool, called "Graph Search," could forever transform the Facebook experience by offering "a never-ending path of quirky discovery" -- one that is designed to keep users hooked on the social-networking site, according to one reviewer, Jennifer Van Grove, on the widely read tech blog CNet.
But if Facebook's vast stockpile of users' likes and recommendations poses a significant competitive threat to Google (GOOG), the reigning search industry giant, experts say the new search tool won't cause major damage to Google's business in the near term. Facebook's stock fell slightly Wednesday, for the third day in a row, suggesting that investors don't feel the new feature is an immediate game-changer.
"It doesn't instantly make Google obsolete," said Danny Sullivan, a veteran search analyst and editor-in-chief of the blog Search Engine Land.
Facebook is introducing the service gradually, offering it initially to just a few thousand people who signed up for a test program. And while Sullivan said he's fascinated by the new feature's possibilities, he added in an interview, "it will probably take a little while for people to get used to doing searches that they don't even think they can do."
In a similar vein, financial analysts said the new tool opens the door for Facebook to sell lucrative advertising based on users' searches, which is the mainstay of Google's multibillion-dollar business. But Facebook said it's not selling ads tied to the service for now. And tech analyst Karsten Weide of the IDC research firm said the company missed a bigger opportunity.
"If they committed to doing Web search and built a Web search engine that was turbocharged with social search, too, that would give Google a run for its money," Weide said.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, however, said during a presentation to reporters Tuesday that he views searching the social network as something far different from searching the Web -- but just as valuable, or more so.
While Zuckerberg said more features are in the works, the new Graph Search for now allows Facebook users to look for results in four subject areas: photos, people, places and interests.
Facebook engineers designed Graph Search to emphasize results that are linked to a user's Facebook friends, such as photos or TV shows, restaurants or even national parks that are "liked" or recommended by people whom the user knows. It also permits broader searches for information, such as a list of local restaurants liked by people who graduated from a famous cooking school, or a list of people who work at a certain company, when those people have posted that information on Facebook and designated it as public.
In a presentation Tuesday, Facebook engineers suggested a variety of other uses, such as helping a user find someone he met at a friend's party, when he only remembers the person's first name or the school he attended. They also showed results of a search for "music liked by people who like Mitt Romney." In his own test, Sullivan said he enjoyed unearthing old photos of pals, and learning what movies or music two different people agreed on.
Along with photos, Graph Search looks for certain types of information provided by users, such as their hometown or hobbies, and things for which users have clicked a "like" button. But it won't search the content of written messages or posts, although Facebook said that's in the works.
Saying they are sensitive to privacy concerns, Facebook executives stressed that the search tool will only show photos or information that's otherwise available on Facebook to the person doing the search. But despite past warnings, critics said users who haven't taken the time to sort through Facebook's multi-layered privacy settings may be alarmed to learn that some old photos or other information can be found much more easily than in the past.
"It should not be on users to check their privacy settings when Facebook makes changes," said Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
But some analysts suggested privacy concerns will subside as people get used to the new feature. In a bullish note to investors, Arvind Bhatia of the Sterne Agee investment firm wrote that, "long term, we think this will be a big revenue opportunity."
Contact Brandon Bailey at 408-920-5022; follow him at Twitter.com/BrandonBailey.