Facebook watchers are speculating that the social network could be preparing to unveil a search engine because CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted a photo of his laptop that appeared to show a Facebook page with a prominent search bar. Facebook engineers, led by Lars Rasmussen, formerly of Google, reportedly are working on search technology that experts say could help Facebook steal a slice of the $15 billion search-advertising market. "Search is the best form of monetization on the Web by far, and they are leaving that on the table. From a business perspective, you have to think about going into search," says Doug Leeds, CEO of Ask.com. Bloomberg Businessweek
On Feb. 1, a few hours after Facebook declared its intention to raise $5 billion in what will likely be the largest initial public offering in tech history, Mark Zuckerberg gave close followers of his company a potential clue to its future. On his Facebook profile, he uploaded a photograph of his desk and a large sign that read in big red letters, “Stay focused & keep shipping.” Yet it was the adjacent MacBook laptop in the image that drew the most attention. Visible on the computer’s screen was a blurry image of a Facebook page and, at the top, what seemed to be an unusually elongated white box. Web pundits speculated the image showed a prototype of a new Facebook search engine.
To date, Facebook hasn’t made search a priority, and it shows. The prominent white box at the top of each page is good at helping users find other members. It’ll also spit back Facebook pages for brands and locations, recent status updates from friends, and general Web search results powered by Microsoft’s (MSFT) Bing search engine. It’s a crude tool, however. Type in “Sonoma winery,” for example, and you get a disorganized assortment of wineries, people who work at wineries, unrelated banner ads, and a page for a wine-tasting iPhone app. In February, Facebook fielded 336 million search queries, according to ComScore—magnitudes fewer than Google (GOOG) and its closest competitors.
A photo on Zuckerberg's Facebook page shows a tweaked version of the site's search bar
Searching the social network could get a lot better in the near future. About two dozen Facebook engineers, led by a former Google engineer named Lars Rasmussen, are working on an improved search engine, say two people familiar with the project who did not want to be named because the company is in a quiet period ahead of its IPO. The goal, they say, 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.
The $15 billion search advertising market could be a huge opportunity for the company. It’s also a way to attack a chief rival, Google, which is moving in the opposite direction, from search to social, with its incipient Google network. With a more potent search engine, Facebook’s wine-loving users might be able to query the closest wineries that have been liked most often. That would give people one fewer reason to leave the site’s walled garden. Facebook could also follow the lead of companies such as Google and Microsoft and start selling relevant—and profitable—keyword ads alongside results. “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.”