Facebook rolled out changes to its search engine yesterday that let you query the service for status messages and other pieces of content that people post to the social network. The move reflects Facebook's desire to compete with Twitter, where people increasingly turn to share information about current events, such as the recent disputed election in Iran.
The changes also complement upcoming privacy changes to Facebook, which encourage users to share content with "everyone" on Facebook rather than their closed circle of friends - another tweak aimed at curtailing Twitter's influence.
Baking simple filters into the new search tool, Facebook gives you the choice to search for both information that "Friends" posted, in addition to content made public by people you don't know personally. With "everyone," you can search for links and status updates. With your "Friends," you can search across almost all content mediums, including videos and pictures. In addition, you can view searches on the public Web, powered by Microsoft Bing.
I tested the new search tool last night, querying the engine around topics of interest. From my slumping "Red Sox" to finding out about people's latest thoughts on "health care," my searches yielded some interesting results. I liked the fact that Facebook's new search tool returns rich content, posted by my friends, which would be lost in the noise of a search on the public Web or Twitter. (Facebook hopes you share that sentiment). The new search tool also seems to capitalize on Facebook's main advantage over Twitter: It's not a service limited to text-based status messages, and the search results now reflect that dynamic range of content.
How to use Facebook's New Search Tool
After you log in to Facebook, the search bar is in the same spot as it was before the changes - in the upper right hand corner. Once you type in a search term, and hit enter, Facebook brings you to a search results page that shows pages, applications, and Facebook "Friends" with content related to the term.
The power comes in your ability to filter the content. On the left side of the page is a list of ways in which you can organize the results. You can choose search results from people, pages, groups, apps, and events on Facebook where the term has been mentioned. Most powerfully, you can see what your Friends specifically have said around a certain topic (click on the aptly named "posts by friends").
The drop-down menu allows you to visualize different ways in which your Facebook Friends created content that's related to your search term, including wall posts, status messages, links, photos and videos. After you select the type of content you wish to see, you must click on the "filter the results" button.
Where Facebook becomes more Twitter-like
By choosing the "Posts by Everyone" option, you see where Facebook hopes to compete more directly with Twitter. When searching here, Facebook limits results to links, status messages, Wall Posts and "Notes."
Since President Obama is trying to move a health care bill through Congress, I queried the search engine (with "health care") to see what people on Facebook were saying on the topic. Indeed, you could see the country's varying opinions in the results. Status messages read everything from "health care is a fundamental right for citizens" to "new health care proposals are socialist."
This, of course, reminds me of Twitter, where you can see topics debated by using that service's search engine. Like Twitter, you will see an option to update the search results in real time as users write the search term in their status.
This new search tool has a long way to go to catch up with Twitter, which touts more Google-like functionality. On Twitter's advanced search page, you can look for tweets with date ranges, or from certain geographic regions, and assess negative and positive attitudes written about a certain product or topic. You can also search under hashtags, a system Twitter users utilize to sort topics.
Facebook search also only allows you to search 30 days back, for right now. This might not matter to most users, since real time News Feeds move so fast.
While Facebook aims to make its search tool more competitive with Twitter, the option to search for my "Friends" content is more useful than "Everyone." Like most technologies, and the way they are designed, Facebook finds itself beholden to the legacy of its past. So far, Facebook has enjoyed success because it made us feel comfortable to share with a personal network of our choosing; it wasn't designed as a public network like Twitter.
In addition, I believe Facebook's main value for advertisers will be in observing what we say (and learn) about products in our more closed networks. Despite the failures of Facebook's Beacon Advertising program a couple years ago, I do care more about how my brother feels about a new pair of running sneakers opposed to "Everyone." Facebook will argue that it gives me the option to listen to either, but I'm not sure I'll utilize the latter just yet.
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