By Josh Constine
Yandex (NASDAQ:YNDX), the Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) of Russia, has built a voice-activated visual search engine for Facebook (NASDAQ:FB). Codenamed “Wonder,” the mobile app lets people ask what businesses friends have visited and what content they’ve consumed, sources confirm. The question is if Facebook will permit the app. Its policy prohibits use of its data in search engines without permission, and Wonder resembles Facebook “Nearby.”
I talked to multiple industry sources who’ve seen Wonder first-hand or currently have a build of it on their iOS device (though an Android version may have been developed, too). The logo you see at right is my attempt at an artist rendition of what sources say an early version of the app’s logo looked like. One source said Wonder is “about more than Facebook” which means it could pull in more traditional search results, or just make use of data from the partners I detail below.
A Yandex spokesperson said Yandex “can’t confirm and can’t comment” on Wonder. However, they did admit that “Yandex is working on mining social data. We are building social products.” It also noted it would have an announcement to make on that front in the coming weeks or months, which could certainly be a reveal of Wonder.
Here’s a rundown of how an alpha version of Wonder worked, but note that some design and partnership details may change if it’s released.
Wonder users can search using voice for things such as “restaurants in Los Angeles my friends have visited.” A horizontal, tile-by-tile scrolling interface lets them view one at a time the restaurants where their Facebook friends have taken photos or checked in. Wonderers can also type to search instead of using voice, or ask to see where a specific friend has gone.
Clicking on a business shows a horizontal stream of photos and recommendations of that place posted by their friends. Another tap brings up Foursquare-powered venue info such as a map, address, and phone number.
Wonder isn’t just for local businesses like Facebook’s recently launched “Nearby” feature built by the acquired Gowalla team. Wonder can pull up music that friends have listened to, let you learn about artists thanks to Last.fm-powered profiles, or preview or buy songs from iTunes. There’s a news discovery component, too. You can see news articles recently read by all your friends or a specific friend and read them within the app through an internal browser.
Yandex has largely limited itself to Russia and Russian-speaking markets over the years — a market where it is currently the largest search provider. But its share in its home market has come down and been hovering around 60 percent in the last year with competition from Google and others, so it is turning to growth elsewhere.
Some of projects SPB may have helped Yandex with include apps discovery for music, business listings, taxi services (similar to Uber, with a very popular app in Moscow) and more (this Google Play list includes apps for movie listings, ecommerce, Yandex’s Dropbox-like app Yandex.disc, and Yandex.market for ‘personal shopping’ ). In fact, you could think of these as a composite for some of the features of Wonder.
So Wonder sounds great, especially compared to Facebook’s internal search engine, which is glaringly deficient. There’s no way to search for news read by friends, searching an artist’s name in the music category returns zero results, and if you figure out how to use the Places tab to search for restaurants, you’re met with standard-looking search results. Finding photos or recommendations of businesses from your friends is tough.
Facebook tried to fix some of this with Nearby, and did a pretty good job with the business search. Built into a tab in Facebook’s primary mobile apps, Nearby shows you places friends have been, Liked, or recommended. It took a browse-by-category approach to minimizing mobile typing, in contrast to Wonder’s focus on voice commands. However, Nearby doesn’t surface photos taken by friends at places yet, and it might be better off as a standalone app rather than being buried in Facebook for iOS and Android’s navigation.
The problem is that Yandex’s Wonder may be a bit too great and employ too much of Facebook’s data. In May, Facebook updated its Platform Policies to include the statement “You must not include data obtained from us in any search engine or directory without our written permission.” Facebook tells me this was designed to keep your friends from volunteering your private information to public search engines. But Wonder could definitely be interpreted as a search engine, especially considering its built by Yandex, and the policy doesn’t only apply to private data.
In fact, Facebook apparently learned that Yandex was developing Wonder around the time it changed its policy, and the line could have been added to protect Facebook’s future endeavors in search from invaders like Yandex. Therefore, Wonder might get its public Facebook data access shut down if it doesn’t have permission, and I’ve heard Yandex is actually worried this will happen pre- or post-launch.
“Search is interesting. I think search engines are really evolving to give you a set of answers…’I have this specific question, answer this question for me’. Facebook is pretty uniquely positioned to answer the questions people have. ‘What sushi restaurants have my friends gone to in New York in the last six months and Liked?’ These are questions that you could potentially do at Facebook if we built out this system that you couldn’t do anywhere else. And at some point we’ll do it. We have a team working on search.”
Facebook Nearby, since it launched, could answer that sushi question, but so could Wonder thanks to Facebook’s data. With local business discovery comes lots of opportunity for monetization through sponsored placement and other channels. Facebook may not want some other company cashing in on this.
There is hope, though. Facebook struck a status update licensing deal with Yandex in 2010 to allow public posts from Pages to appear in the Russian search engine. In exchange Facebook got a widget on the Yandex home page that helped it sign up Russian users when it was still fighting off local social network VKontakte. Russian news outlet Ria Novosti also reported that Zuckerberg visited Yandex’s headquarters in Moscow in the Fall and held talks with management there.
Perhaps Facebook and Yandex could come to some sort of partnership around Wonder, such as a revenue share or allowing it to use Facebook data in exchange for more promotion of Facebook on Yandex. Other possibilities include Facebook buying the app from Yandex, cloning it the way Facebook copied Snapchat to build Poke, or working out a larger deal where Yandex assists Facebook with its search strategy. If Facebook was really feeling generous, it could just give Yandex permission to use the necessary data in Wonder.