More than a year after promising to give users the ability to search for posts, Facebook is finally coming through.
The company today announced an update to Facebook Search that will make it possible to find that thread congratulating you on your new job, the hilarious comment you made about Walking Dead last month or the selfie you took with the bride at your best friend’s wedding last year.
It’s what Facebook said has been the number one feature request since it rolled out Facebook Graph Search in January 2013, which killed the previous post searching ability. It returns that ability, though more modest in ambition than Facebook once promised. You can only find posts from yourself, those you follow or which have been shared with you.
In September 2013, Facebook said users would be able to find public posts even from people they didn’t follow. That promised update was never widely rolled out, but Facebook said it learned during testing that people were most interested in seeing posts from friends and pages they liked.
“Usually when you think about information retrieval, it’s all about matching content to queries or content to intent,” Facebook’s vice president of search Tom Stocky told Search Engine Land, “but what we found is that on Facebook people care as much if not more about who is posting the content as they do about what the actual content is.”
So that’s where Facebook is focusing now. The update, available only to those using the U.S. English language setting, will start rolling out today on the desktop and the iOS mobile app and should reach all eligible users in the next couple weeks, Stocky said.
Facebook hasn’t released a timeframe for the release of the search update on the Android app. “We want to make sure these updates work really well before rolling them out to other platforms,” a Facebook spokesperson wrote in an email.
Facebook Graph Search was never launched for languages other than U.S. English — and so people using Facebook in other languages never lost the ability to search for posts.
The results will be “personalized and unique” to each user, Stocky said, pulling from posts by friends, pages and people that he or she follows. The closer the connection, the higher a given piece of content will display in the results.
If you’re not somehow connected to someone, you won’t be able to find their posts — even if those posts were tagged as public for anyone to see. The exception is when searching by hashtags. In those cases, any post might be found.
The news that Facebook Search won’t capture all public posts will disappoint journalists hoping to mine public conversation for sources and story leads, but Stocky said the results aren’t refined enough yet.
As said, before the launch of Facebook Graph Search, Facebook did allow for post searching. But Stocky said that only included about two days of posts, and even then the results were inconsistent. Now, post search will go through all Facebook posts in the index, a set of more than 1 trillion posts that grows by billions every day.
Stocky said his team is still working to bring public posts into the fold. “When we do eventually roll this out, we want to roll it out in the right way and we want to allow ranked content and show the most relevant information and get rid of a lot of that noise,” Stocky said. “It’s something that we are working on but we just don’t think it’s there yet.”
As for Facebook Graph Search, that survives. The ability to search for something like “Friends of friends who work at Foursquare and live in San Jose,” for example — is still functional.
However, users who type in a just few words will be presented search suggestions, based on what Facebook believes they will be interested in.
So was Facebook Graph Search — Facebook’s ambitious plan that especially seemed aimed at helping people get recommendations about local businesses and services — a failure? Stocky wouldn’t characterize it as that but did say this type of search activity isn’t what Facebook users seem to want.
“Most people, when they’re thinking ‘I want to go to a restaurant in New York,’ aren’t thinking of Facebook Search,” he said.
Instead, Facebook learned from the Facebook Graph Search beta that people wanted a simple interface and especially to have post searching ability returned.
As for local search and recommendations, Stocky said Facebook is now more focused on making that information available through discovery.
“A lot of Facebook isn’t about explicit intent,” he said. People tend to browse Facebook more than search. That’s why one reaction has been to do recommendations on check-ins. “If you check into a restaurant, you’ll now get a set of things, interesting places nearby.”
Is there more Facebook could do in local? Our local search writer Greg Sterling believes so and covers this in a companion story today, Facebook Search: Why Doesn’t The Company Get Local?
By the way, the most popular search activity on Facebook? That remains as it always has been, Stocky said — to find other people.
You can also read more about the new Facebook Search in this microsite at Facebook.
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