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Facebook debuts a new search tool

Keeping users on site a big goal

“Graph search is a completely new way to get information on Facebook,’’ chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said.

Stephen Lam/Getty Images

“Graph search is a completely new way to get information on Facebook,’’ chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said.

NEW YORK — Facebook on Tuesday took a stab at cracking a big problem of its own making: how to help its one billion users find what they’re looking for in the jumble of posts, pictures, and blue thumbs-up ‘‘likes’’ they share every day.

At company headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., Mark Zuckerberg, cofounder and chief executive, announced a tool Facebook had spent over a year honing. He called it ‘‘graph search,’’ and said it would be available to a limited number of users on Tuesday and gradually rolled out to the rest. It will enable users to search the social network for people, places, photos, and things that interest them.

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That might include, Zuckerberg said, Mexican restaurants in Palo Alto that his friends have ‘‘liked’’ on Facebook or checked into — though not status updates yet. The tool might be used to find a date or a job, Facebook executives said.

‘‘Graph search is a completely new way to get information on Facebook,’’ Zuckerberg said.

What he didn’t say, but which was clear, was how it would try to elbow out other companies that let you search for things: LinkedIn for jobs, Yelp for restaurants, Amazon for gifts, and, of course, Facebook’s biggest rival on the Web, Google, which dominates Web search.

Facebook is staking its bet on the sheer volume of data it has access to; it is hoping users will find what they’re looking for on Facebook itself, without using the rest of the Web.

That is how Zuckerberg distinguished Facebook search from Google search, which sends you to other sites.

‘‘Web search is designed to take any open-ended query,’’ Zuckerberg said. ‘‘Graph search is designed to take a precise query and return to you the answer, not links to other places where you get the answer.’’

Zuckerberg sought to reassure Facebook users that their posts and pictures would be found only if they want them to be found. Users will get a nudge: ‘‘Please take some time to review who can see your stuff,’’ it will read.

Zuckerberg said that initially, photos posted on Instagram, which Facebook owns, would not be part of the database of photos that can be searched. He did not specify how soon graph search would be available on cellphones.

If done right, said Brian Blau, an analyst with Gartner, the Facebook search tool could offer marketers a more precise signal of a Web user’s interests than a keyword on Google.

‘‘It’s going to lend itself to advertising or other revenue-generating products that better matches what people are looking for,’’ he said.

‘‘Advertisers are going to be able to better target what you’re interested in. It’s a much more meaningful search than keyword search.’’

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