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Facebook opens up its people search to everyone

Facebook, the tightly walled garden of social networking, is opening up its directory of users to search engines.

Early this morning, Facebook announced that it is making its database of users searchable by nonmembers. The reduces, slightly, the amount of privacy people have on the social network, but it also adds a great deal of utility to the service and reflects Facebook's growing dominance as the Web's white pages.

Facebook is offering its users an easy way to opt out of the service via its privacy settings. People who want to do so are advised to get on this right away, before Google and other search engines index the public Facebook pages.

Non-Facebook users can now find people on the giant social network, but they can't see much.

Once a Facebook user is found by a non-Facebook user, either through a search engine or Facebook's search, the found person's picture and name shows up, as well as options to message, friend, or poke the person who was found. Each user has the option to individually disable these functions when they are found by a non-Facebook user.

If the finder wants to do more than poke the user--for example, if he or she wants to see a person's full profile--the person will have to sign on to Facebook and successfully add the person to his or her friend list. That's the brilliance of this move: It makes Google into a Facebook marketing engine, but it requires that users join Facebook to see anything interesting or to perform more than the most basic Facebook activities.

It may appear that this move also puts the hurt on emerging people search engines like Wink, Spock, and PeekYou (see GigaOm). However, once Facebook's public pages are searchable, I believe the greatest beneficiaries will be those new search engines, which, until now, have had a gaping hole in their data: the lack of results from Facebook. While, as I said, Facebook is becoming a powerful directory of active Web users, it's not the only place people keep profiles and personal data.