Facebook tries to build a search engine of its own
▶ It’s building a tool that’s like a Twitter-google mashup ▶ “If they get it right … it’s extremely lucrative”
Every few months, Twitter infuriates die-hard users by changing itself to work more like Facebook. Tom Stocky’s job at Facebook is to figure out how to go the other way, building a search function that could make the social network better at collecting the latest thoughts on Bernie Sanders’s
tax plan, or which Oscar winners are drawing chatter, or where in Thailand to snorkel.
Facebook completes 1.5 billion search requests every day, but most are pretty simple, like the name of the guy you just met in that bar. In October, Stocky’s team quietly made it possible to sift all public posts for results on any kind of search, meaning you can research hotels or recipes with recommendations from all 1.6 billion users, not just your Facebook friends.
If that sounds like Google, the sales pitch is almost word-for-word Twitter. “What we really tried to do was make Facebook a place where you could tap into the global conversation of what was happening in the world,” says Stocky, vice president for search. “We really want to basically make Facebook the best place to find what people are saying about something right now.”
That’s not easy. Facebook’s search algorithm has to assess and rank trillions of user posts—more Web pages than Google’s search engine indexes. And Facebook wasn’t particularly good at search even when it was much smaller. While a search bar has been sitting prominently atop the home page since shortly after the site’s creation in 2004, its results didn’t extend beyond names of friends to connect with until 2010.
At that point, Facebook struck a deal with Microsoft to show Bing results in its search bar. In 2013, Facebook unveiled its own attempt at a more general search tool, called Graph Search. It required users to enter queries in a highly stylized way, as if they were talking to a robot: “My friends who went to high school in Long Island and live in Philadelphia,” or “Google employees who like national parks.” Not surprisingly, Graph Search never caught on, and Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg later admitted it worked as intended less than half the time.
In the past couple years, Facebook has done more recruiting in the field, luring search engineers from competitors and rethinking how the process should work. Search on Facebook, like anywhere online, starts with indexing. The momentt someone publishes a post, Facebook’sbook’s algorithm scans the sentences for keywords that can help categorize it. It then makes more qualitative judgments, including some that are fairly specific to Facebook. Is this well-written? Are there grammatical errors or misspellings? Is the writer an authority on this subject, based on past posts? Does she usually receive many likes and comments?
“We need to make sure that all the updates—every single photo, every single video, link, share, like, comment—are reflected in our index in a matter of seconds,” says Girish Kumar, Facebook’s director of engineering for search. Kumar says Facebook’s algorithm prioritizes results from original sources and authorities. Friends will appear high in the results, but so will brands, pages, celebrities, and knowledgeable strangers.
Facebook has hired hundreds of employees and contractors to test the search software. As recently as a couple of months ago, the results weren’t that good, Stocky says. Getting recipes when searching for Turkey, the country? Facebook didn’t account for some contextual factors—the phone making the search was in Istanbul.
Along with bug testers on the payroll, Facebook’s users are indirectly providing data on the search tool’s utility. When you click on a post or share an article, up pops a link that shows how many people are talking about the item and suggests related stories. When you use the social network to log an appearance at a restaurant, Facebook Search delivers reviews from other visitors. “If search on Facebook really takes off, I think Google is under pressure,” says Victor Anthony, an analyst at Axiom Capital Management. “If they get it right and they’re able to monetize against searches, it’s extremely lucrative.”
It’s unclear whether most people will want to use Facebook as a kind of universal search engine, says Mark Mahaney, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets. “They think of Facebook as the place they communicate and share with their friends.” The company “would have to come up with a better search experience to get people to considerconside using their search functionality instead of Google’s. The odds are very slim.”
Stocky says he’s used the search tool to get baby-monitor recommendations from friends who’ve posted about certain brands. For now, though, he’s working on broadening the conversation. “You should be able to tap into these perspectives and experiences from people you don’t know,” he says. “When people actually associate Facebook with answering the questions they have, that’s when we’ll be successful.”
“We need to make sure that all the updates—every single photo, every single video, link, share, like, comment—are reflected in our index in a matter of seconds.” —— Facebook’s Girish Kumar
The bottom line Facebook is working on ways to improve the searchability of its trillions of posts and make its network more of a real-time resource.