Photo: Matthew Lynley / Business Insider
Facebook’s Graph Search has been hailed as a brand-new feature, one of what CEO Mark Zuckerberg called a “pillar” of the social network along with its personalised News Feed and chronological Timeline profiles.In fact, the search feature is more or less a revival of an older feature that Facebook killed off, according to former Facebook executive Dave Morin.
Morin, now the CEO of mobile social network Path, told TechCrunch’s Mike Butcher at the DLD conference in Germany that Facebook had an “Advanced Search” feature during the time he worked there, from 2006 to 2010.
According to Morin, that search feature let you look for “my friends in SF that [sic] ski”—a query very similar to the natural-language searches that Graph Search beta users can now do. (Facebook has limited adoption of Graph Search.)
Here’s a screenshot from Kagan’s blog. (This version doesn’t seem to have the same free-form language search that Morin mentioned.)
Photo: Noah Kagan
The issue, Morin suggested, was scalability—the ability for the search feature to keep up with computational demands as Facebook’s user base exploded into the hundreds of millions in the latter part of the last decade.
Facebook engineering manager Lars Rasmussen’s explanation of how it built Graph Search also supports Morin’s observation. Facebook had been maintaining three separate systems for searching its data about users, Rasmussen said. One of those systems, Unicorn, has been upgraded to handle all kinds of searches, and now forms the back-end basis for Graph Search.
There are traces of those old search systems on the site today. For example, one old Web address for Facebook search is facebook.com/srch.php. That redirects to a people-focused search page which lets you search for friends based on location, employer, or school.
Another old Web address, facebook.com/search.php, leads to the current search interface, which sorts results by people, Facebook Pages, Places, Events, and other data on the social network.
Graph Search’s big innovation is the new user interface on top of this data, which takes plain-English phrases and translates them into structured queries that Facebook’s back-end search systems can handle. That’s a big improvement over the state of Facebook search in recent years.
But Graph Search only tracks limited kinds of “structured” data—the kind of information you enter into fields on your profile, declare by clicking a Like button, or attach to photos or status updates, like friends’ names and locations. Graph Search doesn’t do free-form searches on words and phrases inside status updates, for example. In that way, it is very similar to the old system Facebook killed off last decade.
A Facebook spokesperson confirmed that Morin’s account of the search feature’s history was largely correct.
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