When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg mentioned during an interview last month that he wanted to build a search engine, headline writers instantly put leading search engine Google on notice. Yet, while Larry and Sergey are probably watching closely, the technology and data at Facebook's disposal suggest the company will most likely create something fundamentally different from Google's search service.
Facebook lacks the comprehensive index of the Web that it would need to equal Google's ability to match queries with web pages — and it would have to invest a lot to create one.
However, flush with cash from its IPO this summer, the world's largest social network already has its own unique stockpile of data — courtesy of its users' social lives — that could power a new kind of search engine altogether. By mining users' updates about vacations, music listening interests, online habits, and more, Facebook Search could be better at answering subjective questions, about what products, experiences, and businesses you might be interested in, than a traditional search engine.
"It would be very hard to create a general search engine to match Google," says Apostolos Gerasoulis, a professor at Rutgers University who helped lead work on search technology at Ask Jeeves after the company acquired his search engine Teoma in 2001. Trying to replicate Google's approach would require Facebook to spend considerable sums developing and deploying software "bots" capable of crawling billions of web pages every day to gather a comprehensive index of the web, he says. "Because Google is so big," says Gerasoulis, "They have data for the long tail" — the uncommon queries for which relatively few pages are a match.