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Searching Facebook More Intimately

Cuil indexes your Facebook network and produces results based on your social connections.
December 1, 2009

In the search industry’s push to mine online social networks for improved results, the search engine Cuil has become the first to index information from your Facebook friends. Cuil then places direct and thematically related results from your Facebook network beside general Web search results.

The search offering, called Facebook Results, only works if you opt in from a Cuil search-return page. Once you do that, Cuil indexes your Facebook network in a few seconds. Afterward, any Cuil general Web search you perform also turns up items from your Facebook network and posts them in a right-hand column.

Cuil’s search algorithms find direct and related results. For example, my search for “asthma” summoned Facebook posts from a friend who had started a health-care networking website, others from a high-school classmate writing about his cancer diagnosis (the word “diagnosis” was deemed relevant), as well as a few posts about people’s colds and sinus complaints. A search for “Ecuador” turned up a travel agent acquaintance who was talking about a jungle tour, as well as a post from a journalist friend who was passing along a news story about the Congo (the technology picked up on the developing-nation theme).

In contrast, when I performed my “asthma” and “Ecuador” searches within Facebook, the Facebook engine gave me only general hits such as Facebook pages for asthma sufferers or national fan sites for Ecuador, but nothing at all from any of my friends’ posts.

The Cuil technology is built on Facebook Connect, the existing Facebook interface that other websites use to gain exposure within the social network. Facebook permitted Cuil to indexes users’ content–when permitted by individual users–on the condition that the information could only be viewed by the searcher, and that Cuil would not let other search engines access the Facebook information, according to Seval Oz Ozveren, a Cuil vice president. Facebook Results is the first such release between Cuil and a social networking site to integrate users’ social profile on search pages. It was announced in November; the concept was first discussed by Cuil in July. More such deals are expected to follow, she says.

“Social search is here to stay, and we are certain to see more Facebook integration by other players as well,” says Oren Etzioni, a computer scientist and search researcher at the University of Washington, who added that Facebook’s permissions will be the key to such efforts. “We see how important Facebook and other social networks are, and we also see how Facebook is seeking to parlay that importance into a role on other sites using initiatives like Facebook Connect, and now this one.”

Found on Facebook: Search returns on Cuil can include hits from the searcher’s Facebook network, shown on the right-hand side of the screen, if the user opts in.

Cuil launched in the summer of 2008 amid hype that it was a “Google-killer” because it claimed to hold the largest search index in the world. But after it launched, servers crashed and algorithms sometimes gave irrelevant results. But the company hopes the social-search strategy can bring it back.

Cuil’s new effort is, of course, hardly the only social search effort in the business. Facebook and other social-networking sites already let users search within their networks, albeit with sometimes-spotty results. And Worio offers a Facebook application that generates recommended Web links, akin to search results, based on analyses of information from a user’s social network. (If you were searching about asthma or Ecuador, they might offer websites offering medical advice or travel tips.)

And in October, Google announced, within its Google Labs test bed, a technology called Social Search. This allows users to find results from their social networks; but only those results that are already publicly available on the Web, such as websites, blogs, status updates, and other public content. The Google technology identifies your social network based on your Gmail chat buddies, the blogs and other websites you link to, and by indexing publicly available content from services including Twitter and FriendFeed.

But in the case of Facebook, the technology would only find the same public profile pages that are already visible and can be found with general Web searches. Google has not disclosed any formal launch plan for its social search efforts.

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