Facebook updates search bar to encourage users to search for ‘people, places and things’

Facebook is testing a subtle change to its search bar to now include the phrase “Search for people, places and things.” Previously, the bar only included the word “search.”

As far as we can tell, there is no difference in how search results are now displayed, but the difference in wording could have an impact on how people use the feature. Facebook did not respond for comment about the wording change, however, we wonder if it’s part of some preliminary movements toward one day introducing search-based ads. If users were to begin using Facebook search for more than looking up their friends, the social network would have valuable information about users’ intent, which it could monetize the way Google has with AdWords. [Update 6/14/12 5:40 p.m. PT – Facebook says this is just a wording change, and that it hasn’t made any significant back-end changes to search recently.]

With so many apps and sites connecting with Open Graph through the Like button and deeper integrations, Facebook already has a robust map of the web. Although most people use the search bar to find their friends, pages or apps on the site, fewer users know that they can use it to navigate to areas off-Facebook. For example, a search for Hulu will take users to Hulu.com. Users can also search for music on Spotify or links they have recently Liked or shared. The social network even has a lesser-known location search feature that could rival Yelp or Google for local business searches if the social network decided to put resources toward developing it.

For many queries, however, Facebook doesn’t return useful results. Its algorithms take users’ and their friends’ connections into account, and they tend to favor people and apps. Search results aren’t always relevant when users are looking for something they don’t have any existing connections to. Last year, Facebook introduced directories for people, pages and places. These pages allow users to search exclusively among one these categories, rather than relying on Facebook’s algorithms to decide what they might be looking for. However these pages are not easily accessible anywhere on the site.

Another big problem is that Facebook search does not have a good system for recognizing misspellings. If a user accidentally types an extra space or leaves out a space between words, the search becomes essentially useless. There are also millions of unofficial pages that make it difficult for users to find the right one.

How exactly Facebook is approaching search is unknown, but it’s likely that the social network has been working to improve its offering. The company appeared to have hired search ranking and infrastructure engineers in February. Business Week reported in March that a former Google engineer was leading the team. There was also much speculation after CEO Mark Zuckerberg shared a photo of his laptop, which appeared to feature a much larger search bar than is currently on the site. This may have been simply an early iteration of the search bar we’re now seeing including the words “Search for people, places and things,” though the photo is too blurry to be sure.

If the company were to change its search results page to include keyword-based ads, Facebook could cut further into Google’s territory. On Wednesday, the social network surprised some with its announcement of Facebook Exchange, a new cookie-based system that will allow third parties to serve retargeting ads on the site.