Tracking down that video of your nephew learning to walk that your sister-in-law posted to Facebook six months ago is about to get a lot easier. At least, that is what Facebook is promising users following an announcement Monday of improvements to its search feature. The update will be rolling out this week in U.S. English for the iPhone app and desktop -- but not without concerns from privacy advocates.
Facebook has been testing its search feature, known as Graph Search, for years. "Search at Facebook is a long-term effort," said Tom Stocky, vice president of Search at Facebook, writing in a blog post about Monday's announcement. "Today is a step toward helping you tap into the experiences and perspectives of your friends."
More Compelling User Experience
In a conference call with analysts in January, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg chalked the long development time for the search function up to the sheer volume of data that users have uploaded to the social network.
"There's just so much content that people have shared on Facebook that simply building the infrastructure to index all of it and start ranking it is a multi-year effort," Zuckerberg told analysts on the call.
Users will now be able to search for people, posts, photos, places, Pages, Groups, apps and events on their timeline. They will also be able to search using specific keywords (such as "Caroline wedding") and receive a list of results. Members will also be able to search using longer phrases such as "friends who live in New York."
We reached out to Christopher Dodge, associate director at Strategy Analytics, for his thoughts on the announcement. According to Dodge, although the new search function is a big step up from Facebook's previous search, coming up with an improved version had not been a necessity for the company.
"It's really just an added benefit for the user," Dodge told us. "This now makes the Facebook experience more compelling. They realized that with more posts overall now, including sharing of stories, 'liked' stories, sponsored content, and the typical Facebook status updates, important content was getting lost and difficult to recall. Now users can find a post they recall a friend posting based on the content, even if they forgot who posted it."
But the real prize might be the value that Facebook's enhanced search capabilities can bring to its advertising business, according to Raul Castañon-Martinez, senior analyst for Enterprise Mobility Infrastructure and Services at 451 Research.
"Facebook's new search capability will provide access to information that is very valuable for digital advertising, because it provides real-time data for improved targeting and delivery of mobile advertisements," Castañon-Martinez told us. "More importantly, their new search function will provide advertisers with access to information that is not searchable by Google; this gives Facebook the upper hand."
One of the most important issues in the announcement, Dodge said, is the fact that Facebook has addressed privacy concerns related to the new search function. An entire section of the FAQ that accompanied the announcement is dedicated to the subject, along with a video assuring users that their information is secure and advising them on how to adjust their privacy settings.
Your contacts will be able to search for things that you have already shared with them before. However, they will not be able to search for anything that you have not made available to them previously. People who are not your friends on Facebook, meanwhile, would not get a search result for any information you have not made publicly available.
"People can only see things on Search that they have permission to see on other parts of Facebook, such as News Feed," Rousseau Kazi, a product manager at Facebook, said in the video. The video goes on to walk users through the steps they need to take if they wish to change their settings.
While Facebook claims to take pains to ensure privacy, users need to be ever vigilant about checking their Facebook privacy settings to understand what they are sharing and with whom. Facebook and other social media sites offer an absolute trove of personal information available to the masses, including criminals and other individuals looking to exploit vulnerable, insufficiently protected accounts.