Search option from Facebook is privacy test

Written by New York Times | Updated: Jan 21 2013, 02:19am hrs
Whether Facebooks users will continue to divulge more private details will determine whether so-called social search is the next step in how we navigate the online world

Somini Sengupta & Claire Cain Miller

Facebooks greatest triumph has been to persuade a seventh of the worlds population to share their personal lives online. Now the social network is taking on its archrival, Google, with a search tool to mine that personal information, just as people are growing more cautious about sharing on the Internet and even occasionally removing what they have already put up. Whether Facebooks more than one billion users will continue to divulge even more private details will determine whether so-called social search is the next step in how we navigate the online world. It will also determine whether Facebook has found a business model that will make it a lot of money.

Theres a big potential upside for both Facebook and users, but getting people to change their behaviors in relation to what they share will not be easy, said Andrew T Stephen, who teaches marketing at the University of Pittsburgh and studies consumer behavior on online social networks. This week, Facebook unveiled its search tool, which it calls graph search, a reference to the network of friends its users have created. The companys algorithms will filter search results for each person, ranking the friends and brands that it thinks a user would trust the most. At first, it will mine users interests, photos, check-ins and likes, but later it will search through other information, including status updates.

While the usefulness of graph search increases as people share more about their favorite restaurants, music and other interests, the product doesnt hinge on this, a Facebook spokesman, Jonathan Thaw, said. Nevertheless, the company engineers who created the tool former Google employees say that the project will not reach its full potential if Facebook data is sparse, as they call it. But the company is confident people will share more data, be it the movies they watch, the dentists they trust or the meals that make their mouths water. The things people declare on Facebook will be useful, when someone searches for those interests, Tom Stocky, one of the creators of Facebook search, said in an interview this week. Conversely, by liking more things, he said, people will become more useful in the eyes of their friends. You might be inclined to like what you like so when your friends search, theyll find it, he said.

Independent studies suggest that Facebook users are becoming more careful about how much they reveal online, especially since educators and employers typically scour Facebook profiles. A Northwestern University survey of 500 young adults in the summer of 2012 found that the majority avoided posting status updates because they were concerned about who would see them. The study also found that many had deleted or blocked contacts from seeing their profiles and nearly two-thirds had untagged themselves from a photo, post or check-in.

These behavioral patterns seem to suggest that many young adults are less keen on sharing at least certain details about their lives rather than more, said Eszter Hargittai, an associate professor of communication studies at Northwestern, who led the yet unpublished study among men and women aged 21 and 22.

Graph search is something of a coming-of-age moment for social search. Companies from Google to Yelp to TripAdvisor to small start-ups like Hunch have all tried to make search more social, by providing personal answers from people you know and not just links to Web sites, in an effort to bring word-of-mouth recommendations online. Bing, which has a partnership with Facebook, announced this week that it would add more social recommendations to standard Web links in search queries. But no company has tried social search on Facebooks scale. Facebooks social search is also a step forward in a new type of Web search, one in which Google has made great strides. Engineers call it structured or semantic search, which means search engines that understand how people, places and things relate to one another, and not just key words. Graph search holds great value for advertisers seeking to target more precise audiences like mothers in their 30s who listen to hip-hop and run marathons and advertising remains Facebooks principal source of profit. Additionally, the more data people share and search for, the longer they are glued to the site. But the company is aware of concerns about privacy. When announcing the tool, it took pains to point out that it would respect users privacy. If people do not want an embarrassing photograph to be ferreted out by a potential employer, for instance, they can make it visible only to those who have been winnowed down as close friends.

Users have been encouraged to check their privacy settings in order to fine-tune whom they wish to share with. At the same time, Facebook eliminated a longstanding option that users enjoyed: if someone is searching for them, they will no longer be able to remain obscure. Still, some Facebook users may be sceptical.