Facebook seeks trusted relationships on the 'Net

Facebook's director of engineering dissects product design, development and search efforts at Facebook

While perhaps best known as a major social networking site in the Web 2.0 vein, Facebook is becoming a popular place to interface with potential customers, similar to what companies such as Scribe and iLike have done. Facebook also is being viewed as a place for enterprise collaboration, with Serena Software leveraging the site for this purpose. To get perspective on Facebook, InfoWorld Editor at Large Paul Krill recently spoke with Aditya Agarwal, Facebook director of engineering. Agarwal formerly worked in the Oracle server technologies division.

Agarwal oversees product design and development at Facebook and also is responsible for Facebook's search strategy. Agarwal discussed the company's intentions, search efforts, developer strategy, and infrastructure. He also commented on why the company has been gaining traction in the enterprise.

It's interesting that you worked at Oracle right before Facebook. And you went to Facebook three years ago when the company was not as in the news as it is now. Why would you leave an established software giant like Oracle to go to a startup like Facebook?

Agarwal: I think that at that stage it was clear that Facebook was a young startup with a lot of energy. It was something that had tremendous potential. And there is so much information out there. People put a lot of information online. They made it accessible, but over time really the [intent] is going to be to try to help people make the Web more social. And even then, about three years ago, it was apparent that that was the direction, the trend that the Web was moving in.

You wanted to talk about search efforts. What exactly is happening there with Facebook? When I think of search, I think of Yahoo or Google or some of the others. I don't necessarily think of Facebook.

Agarwal: The reason you use search in Facebook is that there is a lot of information that people are generating within the context of social networks. It becomes quite imperative that you have a way of being able to search that information. And I think that Facebook is taking the first crack at that. And the first crack that we really tackled was -- how do we let people find other people? And you are right in that the scope of this is different than from other Web search engines, but there is a value-add that you can provide when you think of search -- returning users' relevant results that are not based on traditional mechanisms. [For example], when you search for somebody named John, chances are that you are going to get your friends who are named John, your friends of friends who are named John. So [in the case of someone in Silicon Valley, the search might include people] from San Francisco, San Jose, Palo Alto who are named John. I think that we try to essentially provide value based on the unique position that we have. That's the way that we approach search.

So where are you headed with search?

Agarwal: Well, I think we are continuously innovating in the search space. One of the things that we have learned is that search is obviously something that requires a tremendous amount of infrastructure, and we're in the process of scaling our systems out, building up new services and in the future obviously exposing more functionality to the user.

So to give you an example of something that was released very recently, we now allow users the ability to search through their entire inbox, the people inbox, the people's messaging system. The important thing to note there is [that] that's a pretty difficult problem in the sheer size, the scale of the data that we have. But the way that we view search today is that as Facebook becomes more and more [of a public] communications utility and people start using Facebook messages almost exclusively instead of something like e-mail, then we need to provide them with search capability there because it's an important part of having a complete holistic experience.

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