Yandex, the Google of Russia, has built a visual voice-activated search engine for Facebook. Codenamed “Wonder,” the mobile app allows people to ask which businesses their friends have visited and what content they have consumed, sources confirm. The question is whether Facebook will allow the app. Its policy prohibits the use of its data in search engines without permission, and Wonder looks like Facebook “Nearby.”
I’ve spoken to several industry sources who have seen Wonder firsthand or currently have a version of it on their iOS device (although an Android version may have been developed as well). The logo you see above is my attempt at an artistic representation of what the sources say an early version of the app logo looked like. One source said Wonder is “pretty much more than Facebook,” meaning it could pull in more traditional search results, or just use partner data that I detail below.
A spokesperson for Yandex said Yandex “cannot confirm or comment” on Wonder. However, they admitted that “Yandex is working on social data mining. We are building social products. He also noted that he would have an announcement to make on that front in the weeks or months to come, which could certainly be a revelation from Wonder.
Here’s a look at how an alpha version of Wonder works, but note that some design and partnership details may change if released.
Welcome to Wonder
Wonder users can use their voice to search for items such as “restaurants in Los Angeles that my friends have visited”. A horizontal scrolling interface, tile by tile, allows them to see one by one the restaurants where their Facebook friends have taken pictures or have registered. The curious can also type to search instead of using voice, or ask to see where a specific friend has gone missing.
Clicking on a business brings up a horizontal stream of photos and recommendations from that location posted by their friends. Another press brings up location information fed by Foursquare, such as a map, address and phone number.
Wonder isn’t just for local businesses like the ‘Nearby’ feature recently launched by Facebook and designed by the Gowalla team acquired. Wonder can extract music that friends have listened to, let you learn more about artists from profiles powered by Last.fm, or preview or buy songs on iTunes. There is also a news discovery component. You can view recently read news articles by all your friends or a specific friend and read them in the app through an internal browser.
The Yandex passport for the United States
Yandex has largely confined itself to Russia and Russian-speaking markets over the years – a market in which it is currently the largest research provider. But its share of its home market has declined and hovered around 60% last year with competition from Google and others, so it is looking to growth elsewhere.
Just as Google has expanded to mobile to expand the potential footprint of its ad network, Yandex has done the same.
The main one of these efforts has been the movement of Yandex in mobile. A little over a year ago, he bought a company called SPB Software, which develops mobile apps and cross-platform user interfaces.
Some of the projects that SPB has been able to help Yandex include discovering music apps, business listings, taxi services (similar to Uber, with a very popular app in Moscow) and more (this Google Play listing includes apps for movie listings, e-commerce, Dropbox from Yandex – like the Yandex.disc app and Yandex.market for “personal shopping”). In fact, you can think of them as a composite of some of Wonder’s functionality.
Yandex’s localization and mapping efforts are perhaps the most important of all. Yandex maps have replaced Google on iOS devices in Russia, and it also provides search (but not native maps) on Windows Phone devices in the country. These location-based services could simply be Yandex’s passport out of Russia (or at least he hopes so).
Yandex’s dream, Facebook’s nightmare?
So Wonder sounds good, especially when compared to Facebook’s internal search engine, which is clearly flawed. There’s no way to search for news read by friends, searching for an artist’s name in the music category doesn’t return any results, and if you find how to use the Places tab to search for restaurants, you get standard search results. Finding photos or business recommendations of your friends is difficult.
Facebook has tried to fix some of these issues with Nearby and has done a really good job with Finding Businesses. Integrated in a tab in the main Facebook mobile apps, Nearby shows you the places where your friends have been, liked or recommended. It took a category browsing approach to minimize typing on mobile, unlike Wonder’s emphasis on voice commands. However, Nearby does not yet show photos taken by friends in places, and it might be better if it was a standalone app rather than being buried in Facebook for iOS navigation. and Android.
The problem is, Yandex’s Wonder maybe a little too big and using too much data from Facebook. In May, Facebook updated its platform policies to include the statement “You must not include data that we have obtained in any search engine or directory without our written permission.” Facebook tells me this was designed to prevent your friends from voluntarily providing your private information to public search engines. But Wonder could certainly be interpreted as a search engine, especially since it’s built by Yandex, and the policy doesn’t just 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 research efforts from invaders like Yandex. Therefore, Wonder could shut down his public access to Facebook data if he doesn’t have permission, and I’ve heard that Yandex is concerned that this will happen before or after launch.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself told TechCrunch Disrupt SF that Facebook is embarking on research:
“The research 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 in a pretty good position to answer people’s questions. “What sushi restaurants have my friends been to New York in the past six months and liked?” These are questions you could potentially ask on Facebook if we built this system that you couldn’t do anywhere else. And at some point, we will. We have a research team.
Facebook Nearby, since its launch, could answer this question about sushi, but Wonder could also thanks to Facebook data. Finding local businesses offers plenty of monetization opportunities through Sponsored Placement and other channels. Facebook might not want another business to take advantage.
There is hope, however. Facebook entered into a status update license agreement with Yandex in 2010 to allow Pages’ public posts to appear in the Russian search engine. In return, Facebook got a widget on Yandex’s homepage that helped it sign up Russian users while still battling local social network VKontakte. Russian media outlet Ria Novosti also reported that Zuckerberg visited Yandex headquarters in Moscow in the fall and spoke with management there.
Maybe Facebook and Yandex could do some sort of partnership around Wonder, like revenue sharing or allowing him to use Facebook data in exchange for more Facebook promotion on Yandex. Other possibilities include buying the app by Facebook from Yandex, cloning it in the same way that Facebook copied Snapchat to create Poke, or entering into a larger deal in which Yandex helps Facebook in its strategy of research. If Facebook was feeling really generous, it could just allow Yandex to use the necessary data in Wonder.
Regardless of the outcome, sources claim that Yandex has proven that there is wonderful potential for Facebook in mobile search.
[Additional reporting by Ingrid Lunden]