Is Facebook Building A Search Engine?
Near the end of David Fincher’s Fight Club, Edward Norton’s unnamed character encounters two members of Project Mayhem while searching for the truth about the secret group’s leader and his best friend, Tyler Durden. After repeating a rumor that Tyler keeps his identity secret using facial reconstructive surgery, one of the men leans forward and asks Norton, “Is Mr. Durden building an army?” The Mark Zuckerberg we know from interviews and Fincher’s more successful film The Social Network is a far cry from the rough and tumble leader portrayed by Brad Pitt. Still, a similar hushed anticipation follows word that Facebook is readying a more social search engine to compete with Google.
The speculation began with Zuckerberg uploading a snapshot of a MacBook on his desk. Barely visible in the blurry image was a much longer text field with a greater emphasis on search atop his homepage. The ubiquitous social network has a curiously underpowered search engine, often giving cluttered, repetitive, or outright useless results for simple queries, especially on its mobile apps. If he can barely search his own website, how does Zuckerberg plan to beat Google at its own game? By hiring one of the big G’s own engineers.
Business week reports that Facebook has put a team of more than 20 engineers led by Google veteran Lars Rasmussen, who helped create the industry-leading Google Maps, but also spearheaded Google Wave, a communication and collaboration tool that was cancelled amidst heavy criticism for being too complex. Rasmussen left Google based on a personal pitch from Zuckerberg, meaning the search engine project will not only be a priority, but that its leader will have a direct line to the CEO.
Google has made overtures toward more personalized search, but its integration of Google+ information has been unpopular with users. Many users and critics felt Google actually returned less relevant results when it tried to integrate data from their friends’ +1s. Owing to the popular forum-speak shorthand for “I agree,” Google’s +1 concept has yet to grab the public like the instantly recognizable thumbs up Like button which has moved from computer screens to t-shirts and bumper stickers.
Facebook and Google have both become verbs to anyone with even a passing interest in technology. But when people say, “I’ll Facebook you,” they refer to making a social connection rather than looking something up by “Googling it.” Facebook’s best weapon in making up this ground could be that aforementioned Like button. While Zuckerberg’s social network doesn’t have anything near Google’s sophisticated algorithm, it does have a wealth of data from all those Like buttons and Facebook Connect login panels strewn throughout other sites. Data is collected via cookies from all of those pages, even if the user isn’t logged in or doesn’t have an account. The would-be king slayer is sitting on a vast amount of data relating to user behavior and preferences, even if it doesn’t yet know how to use the information.
Both companies claim that they aren’t competing directly, even as Facebook moves into search and Google moves into social. The result of this competition could be vastly improved search engines, as long as users don’t mind giving up even more privacy.