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Path shows Facebook how to do social search right

An update to the social-networking app lets users search their moments in clever ways.

There's been much talk this year about the future of search in social networks. Facebook processes more than a billion queries a day with a notoriously underpowered search engine. "We aren't even trying," Mark Zuckerberg has said. Not yet, anyway.

Today we're getting a good idea of what "trying" looks like. Path, the social-networking startup that brands itself as "the smart journal," is rolling out an update today that brings some innovative search features to its apps for smartphones and tablets.

Path search.
Path search. Path

Path consists of a series of saved moments -- photos, songs you listened to, places you visited, and so on. It's analogous to Facebook's Timeline feature, but designed to be shared with a more intimate circle of friends. The search feature, which sits at the top of the app, retrieves your memories in clever ways.

You can search your moments by place, by date, by season, or by kind of moment. (An easy way to see all your photos.) Path lets users respond to one another with a handful of emotions: smiling, frowning, laughing, surprise, and love. The search feature lets you search by how people reacted to it -- Path founder Dave Morin used the feature to search for sad moments, and up popped the time he had to take his dog to the animal hospital.

"You'd think that a journal would be easy to search," Morin says. "But up until this point it hasn't been. Really the only way to go back in time on Path has been to scroll back in time."

Facebook's Timeline is like that, too. So is Twitter, and Instagram. Each day we pour content into our social networks. And yet retrieving it is surprisingly arduous work. Path's search feature lets you simply type in "one year ago," or "June," and be taken to that time inside the app. It brings in not just your updates but also those of your friends. Or type in a date and a friend's name and see what they shared that day.

Path search also includes an interesting "Nearby" feature. (Yes, it was in development before Facebook named its own location service Nearby.) Tap the location arrow in the search bar and the app will collect all the moments shared by you and your friends in your immediate vicinity. It's a fun way of exploring what's happened in your own neighborhood, but Morin says he wants the feature to be useful abroad. Ever take a trip to a foreign city and wonder what your friends have done there? Open Path search and it puts the information at your fingertips.

Path is famous for its attention to user interface design, and the search feature is no exception. Tapping the search bar brings up a sharp-looking interface full of suggested searches, which reveals the power of the engine that powers it.

"The user interface is designed entirely to help people put this incredibly sophisticated search technology to work in a way that they can understand," Morin says.

Path search could encourage users to spend more time with the app, sharing more moments on Path knowing that they'll be able to retrieve them more easily. It's also a canny move for a company that may be looking to sell itself some day -- to, say, another social network that finds itself in need of a new search engine. (Morin was an early member of the Facebook team and helped to build Facebook Connect.)

But Morin says he's focused on building a "premium" company, with a different business models than his peers. Path has shunned advertising in favor of selling photo filters. Next year will bring new premium features, he said.

"For us, success looks a lot like our peers like Spotify and Evernote -- which are really focused on building value and tools that are very specific for users and building premium features on top of that," Morin says. "We sort of took at those guys, who have 25 million, 50 million users, and we're excited to be moving along as fast as we are."

Morin says Path has now reached 5 million registered users. It's not releasing the number of active users of the service; the metrics company AppData says it has about 840,000 monthly users.

The search feature alone isn't likely to send that number into the stratosphere. But it just may get the attention of a big, wealthy former employer of Morin's with search needs of its own.