Apr 022012

Facebook is working on a revamped search engine that users may prefer over Google.

Facebook already has a search engine. It’s that white search field at the top of the site most of us typically use to find other members. Yet it’s seemingly capable of searching for basically anything thanks to Microsoft’s Bing, producing results within the Facebook blue-and-white environment. It’s a crude tool, and functional to a degree, but it’s no Google to say the least.

Will that change? Probably not in a Google sense, but Facebook hired on former Google engineer Lars Rasmussen to turn Facebook’s search around. Originally he co-founded mapping software company Where 2 Technologies, sold it to Google in 2004, and then helped create Google Maps.

After that, Rasmussen created Google Wave with his brother Jens (who still resides at Google) which soon came to an end thanks to a lack of consumer interest. He jumped off the Google bandwagon and landed in Facebook’s arms in 2010 after a personal pitch from Zuckerberg himself.

Now unnamed sources claim that he’s currently leading a team of about two dozen engineers to overhaul Facebook’s search engine. The goal, as reported by Bloomberg Businessweek, is to help users “better sift through the volume of content that members create on the site, such as status updates, and the articles, videos, and other information across the Web that people ‘like’ using Facebook’s omnipresent thumbs-up button.”

There’s no intention of taking Google head on, but as indicated, Facebook is taking a different route to search. A better search engine would mean that Facebook users wouldn’t have to leave its pages at all, or open a different tab and use Google. It would also open the door for Facebook to sell relevant, profitable keyword ads alongside results, just like Google and Microsoft.

“Search is the best form of monetization on the Web by far, and they are leaving that on the table,” says Doug Leeds, chief executive officer of search engine Ask.com. “From a business perspective, you have to think about going into search.”

Remember all that fuss over Google not being able to access Facebook information? This may be why. Instead of crawling across the entire Web and ranking each page, Facebook’s engine would instead crawl through its immense database of user input, from “liking” the best articles, rating recipes, to pointing out shopping deals. Rather than looking outward, Facebook’s search would look inward, relying on user input.

Gil Elbaz, CEO of data-crunching startup Factual and co-creator of the business that became AdSense, sees a treasure trove in Facebook’s pool of user data. “Over time, this will let them build a powerful structured search engine,” he told the paper.

Rasmussen, after signing on with Google back in 2010, told the Sydney Morning Herald that social is still a significantly less explored area than search — it’s a frontier of technology in many ways. “But that doesn’t mean in any way that search is obsolete or even close to being obsolete,” he added.

So how will this new search engine affect Facebook’s relationship with Microsoft? Zuckerberg still meets every few months with Qi Lu, president of Microsoft’s online-services division, sources claim. There may be no ruffling of feathers at all, but rather a huge opportunity for two separate types of search engines to work together in harmony to create a huge Google rival, loaded with data Google probably still covets.

Greg Sterling, a senior analyst at Opus Research, says Facebook could quickly become the second-most popular search engine. “There’s a huge amount of revenue waiting to be unlocked if they want to explore search-based pay-per-click advertising,” he told Businessweek. “They can leverage the data and demographic information they already have.”

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