Every time Mark Zuckerberg has tried to tackle Facebook search, he’s landed on his back like Charlie Brown after Lucy pulls away the football.
Facebook’s co-founder and CEO has overseen successful work in areas such as user experience, mobile, display ads, high-performance computing, and multimedia management. But a smart—and conflict-free—search engine has eluded him.
Last month, Zuckerberg—via his vice president of search, Tom Stocky—announced his next effort to connect foot to football. Network searches would prompt improved suggestions and more relevant results. Those results would also include any relevant “public” posts.
“I don’t sense that Facebook is being as forthcoming as it should be about the potential of your public posts being shared very broadly,” — John Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project
“With over 1.5 billion searches per day and over 2 trillion posts in our index, Stocky wrote, “search is an important, long-term effort at Facebook.” He envisions Facebook search—in conjunction with its news feed—helping people learn “what the world is saying” about trending topics.
The development has privacy advocates concerned. There could be billions of posts inadvertently shared with the “public” that are now easily surfaced by any Facebook user worldwide, says John Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project.
“I don’t sense that Facebook is being as forthcoming as it should be about the potential of your public posts being shared very broadly,” Simpson says.
How to solve a problem like oversharing
The personal information people typically post to Facebook—including sensitive data about their religious beliefs, political leanings, health, and places of work and residence—is attractive to identity thieves and scammers.
Facebook users—1.49 billion at last count—have every reason to want to protect that information. Yet many have long found the social network’s privacy settings confusing, as revealed in survey after survey and acknowledged by company officials.
“We recognize that it is much worse for someone to accidentally share with everyone when they actually meant to share just with friends, compared with the reverse,” Facebook said in May 2014, when it announced steps to simplify privacy management, including changing the default sharing setting to “friends” from “public” for new users.
Despite strong efforts to protect their privacy, Facebook users might find themselves—or their less prudent friends—casting their posts, likes, images, or comments to a wider audience than intended, or “oversharing.”
Search is no longer in the category of “a nice feature to have” for Facebook, says Greg Sterling, vice president of strategy and insight for the Local Search Association, an industry group of media companies and technology providers.
“It’s something they need to improve and develop more fully.”
But despite Facebook executives’ “efforts to simplify the privacy controls,” Sterling says, “they haven’t been completely successful.”
In August 2011, while Facebook added a feature to let users automatically change the privacy of past posts from “public” or “friends of friends” to “friends” only, it put the onus on its users to update their settings.
“Far too many people still don’t understand what their privacy settings are, and have posted things that they didn’t intend the whole world to read,” says Simpson of Consumer Watchdog. Facebook, he says, needs to clearly explain the implications of this new search engine capability on the visibility of past posts.
“Facebook is doing very well with display advertising on mobile, but is still essentially nonexistent in mobile search and wants to change that,” — Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research
A Facebook spokesman said the company offers privacy tools and proactive education, including a “privacy checkup” process.
“You’re in control of all the posts you make on Facebook,” he said. “People can edit, delete, or change the audience of their past posts any time.”
Back to the future?
Facebook’s search challenges largely stem from its struggles between private and public sharing, says Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research. Until it finds a comfortable balance, it is missing opportunities in the lucrative search advertising business, he says.
“That’s why Facebook keeps chasing this opportunity,” Dawson says. “Facebook is doing very well with display advertising on mobile, but is still essentially nonexistent in mobile search and wants to change that.”
Five years ago, as Facebook expanded its search results well beyond profile pages, it let third-party developers build public search engines tapping its index.
One such site, called Openbook, became an overnight sensation for the fact that people could publicly access posts users had—knowingly or not—shared with “everyone” on Facebook. The New York Times published an infographic illustrating Facebook’s privacy settings maze of 50 settings and 170 options.
Facebook eventually shut down that type of developer access and eliminated its search engine’s ability to find “public” posts from strangers. It also embarked on an ongoing quest to simplify and explain its privacy settings.
Now that Facebook has again tuned its search engine to surface public posts, Simpson of Consumer Watchdog says, it needs to be explicit in alerting people about the changes.
“Facebook’s got to make it crystal clear that things that were posted publicly, which never got too much attention previously, now are very likely to get much more attention,” Simpson says. “I’m not sure that’s a message they’ve made clear to their users.”
Facebook may have finally kicked that search football between the goalposts, but it could go down in the record books for creating a privacy penalty at the same time.