Search tool aims to aid data sifting

New feature lets users dig into past posts

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks about the Facebook Graph Search feature at  the company's headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks about the Facebook Graph Search feature at the company's headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif.

MENLO PARK, Calif. — Facebook is an excellent tool for certain kinds of social interaction.

With a couple clicks, you can share a cute photo of your newborn baby. You can pop over to the page of a college buddy and find out where he lives now and whether he is a fan of Mad Men.

But just try finding that photo of Mom and Dad in front of the Eiffel Tower during their 2008 trip to Paris, or the name of that lovely bistro nearby that they mentioned in a status update.

Odds are, you would have to plow through a lot of old posts and photos to dig out that information, if you could find it at all.

Now, Facebook Inc. is trying to make it easier to find that lost photo or restaurant recommendation and unearth other information buried within your social network with a tool it calls graph search.

Starting Monday, the company rolled out the feature to its several hundred million users in the United States and to others who use the American English version of the site. Other languages will follow.

Developing a sophisticated search feature is vital to Facebook’s long-term success, both to deepen users’ engagement and to make it more appealing to advertisers.

Experts say Facebook’s technical achievement so far is impressive. However, privacy could still be an issue as more user data becomes easily accessible. Also, the feature is dependent on Facebook users volunteering more information about their likes and dislikes.

Ever since Facebook released an early version of the tool in January, the development team has been observing and listening to millions of testers and making improvements.

“We launched it early, when it still was in a pretty raw state,” Lars Rasmussen, the engineering director of the project, acknowledged in a recent interview.

Facebook’s graph search is still a work in progress, as company officials are quick to acknowledge. Its recognition of synonyms and related topics is spotty. It cannot yet find information in status updates, a top request from users. It does not yet incorporate information from third-party apps such as Yelp or Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.

And the new search tool is not available on Facebook’s mobile apps, which are increasingly the way that people use the service.

But Facebook believes it is now good enough for wide release.

Privacy is one complication.

The company promises that graph search will show only information the searcher would normally be allowed to see under the privacy settings defined by the person who posted the data. So a search for Christians in San Francisco who like to knit won’t pull up everyone who fits that profile, only those who have decided to publicly disclose their religion, love of knitting, and location.

As graph search becomes widely available, Facebook users might be surprised at what information about themselves shows up in searches that others do, especially if old items were posted with looser privacy restrictions.

But soon after Facebook launched the tool for testing, the Internet had a field day with embarrassing queries, showing just how much information people reveal about themselves on the site, intentionally or not.

A blog called actualface bookgraphsearches .tumblr.com posted a collection of searches ranging from “married people who like prostitutes” to “current employers of people who like racism.” Both yielded more than 100 people.

While it is possible that some of those Facebook users are fully aware that what they’ve shared is easily searchable, it is likely that some are not.

It’s easy to click “like” on a page and forget about it, and it’s even easier to assume that no one will search through your photos from party days at the Burning Man festival five years ago.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.