The new engine, dubbed Graph Search, was announced at a media event at Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., Tuesday, ending weeks of speculation that the social networking giant may be prepping its own branded smartphone or a new mobile app.
The Graph Search tool was touted by Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg as being an intuitive search engine that lets users perform searches with "natural" language rather than keywords. Unlike most search engines, Graph Search was built to respond to longer queries like "People who like tennis and live nearby" or "Sushi restaurants in Palo Alto my friends have liked" rather than the shorter keyword searches performed by sites like Google
Graph Search can also handle queries related to photos, allowing users to search for "Photos of my family" or "Photos of my friends taken in Italy," for example.
Facebook further distinguished Graph Search from generic Web search engines by explaining that every piece of content retrieved has "its own audience" and can't necessarily be seen by everybody on the site. Graph Search will only display content to users who would have been able to see it anyway, per their pre-existing privacy controls.
"We've built Graph Search from the start with privacy in mind, and it respects the privacy and audience of each piece of content on Facebook," wrote Tom Stocky, director of product management at Facebook, and Lars Rasmussen, director of engineering at Facebook, in the company blog Tuesday. "It makes finding new things much easier, but you can only see what you could already view elsewhere on Facebook."
Privacy concerns among Facebook users escalated last year, when the networking site killed off a feature allowing users to vote to change certain governance or privacy settings.
According to Eden Zoller, principal analyst at Ovum, Graph Search will significantly improve Facebook's search function, but it could also thrust the company's "mixed track record" with privacy back into the spotlight.
"Before the arrival of Facebook's Graph Search, the search function on Facebook was basic and as such, a wasted opportunity given Facebook's imperative to strengthen advertising revenues. Facebook Graph Search will no doubt leverage member data to provide advertisers with more targeted, personalized advertising opportunities going forward," Zoller said in a statement Tuesday. "But Facebook needs tread very carefully here and be mindful of user privacy. It claims to have built Graph Search with privacy in mind, but Facebook has a mixed track record on this front and is in the habit of pushing privacy to the limits of what is acceptable."
Investors also appeared unsure about the new Graph Search tool, with Facebook shares dropping 2.6 percent Tuesday afternoon.
Facebook said Graph Search is still in the "very early" stages of development. The tool is available in beta today, with the final version being built over the coming months. Once completed, Graph Search will likely be embraced by companies advertising on Facebook, as it will help them send customized ads to users based on their gender, age or location.
When Graph Search officially goes live, Zuckerberg said it will join the Timeline and Newsfeed features as the "third pillar" of Facebook.