The coverage of the competition among the big internet companies is not unlike the classic Japanese monster movies of the 1960s (e.g., King Kong vs. Godzilla): titanic struggles for control of everything as we know it with only one possible winner. A more thoughtful but still sensational installment of that saga is the Wired piece: Great Wall of Facebook: The Social Network’s Plan to Dominate the Internet — and Keep Google Out. (Selling magazines is a tougher business these days.)
The article tells of Google’s early desire to potentially buy Facebook, Microsoft becoming the preferred investment partner, Facebook poaching Google employees and finally of Facebook’s audacious effort to remake the entire Internet into an extension of the social network itself. Here’s a representative passage:
Today, the Google-Facebook rivalry isn’t just going strong, it has evolved into a full-blown battle over the future of the Internet—its structure, design, and utility. For the last decade or so, the Web has been defined by Google’s algorithms—rigorous and efficient equations that parse practically every byte of online activity to build a dispassionate atlas of the online world. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg envisions a more personalized, humanized Web, where our network of friends, colleagues, peers, and family is our primary source of information, just as it is offline. In Zuckerberg’s vision, users will query this “social graph” to find a doctor, the best camera, or someone to hire—rather than tapping the cold mathematics of a Google search. It is a complete rethinking of how we navigate the online world, one that places Facebook right at the center. In other words, right where Google is now.
As the article points out the companies do see themselves as competitors and both have different visions. But to the age-old question of whether Facebook is a threat to Google or to search engines more generally the answer is no (or at least not at this point).
Facebook is reportedly working on improving its own site search though apparently not web search on the site. Indeed, the version of web (Microsoft) search on the site is so weak as to be unusable. Maybe we’ll see a version of Bing show up on Facebook at some point. While that would be a boon to Bing and Microsoft, a branded Bing experience is unlikely to make its way into Facebook. We’ll see if I’m wrong.
As Danny points out, humans are coming back into search in a variety of ways. And there are ways that Facebook could become a kind of help/recommendations engine (Twitter too) for its members. If all these things were well executed — tapping the network for recommendations, better internal search and web search — Facebook might be able to siphon off a percentage of queries that would otherwise go to Google. But it’s unlikely that Facebook will execute equally well on all potential search fronts.
Currently the use cases for Facebook and for search are quite different. Facebook is entertaining, Facebook is fun, Facebook kills time, Facebook enables me to keep in touch with people. But Facebook, generally speaking, is not “useful” in the sense that Google is. For its part, Google delivers information efficiently but is generally not “entertaining” or “fun.”
Notwithstanding Facebook’s ambition to “dominate the internet,” it’s very likely that the two sites will simply co-exist fulfilling different types of needs and interests. That’s not to say that they won’t continue to offer competitive products or programs but neither can be expected to fundamentally undermine the core business of the other.
Both companies share challenges on the advertising side: Google would like to gain more branding dollars and Facebook needs to generate ad revenues more efficiently and effectively. That’s especially true if Facebook is to become a public company one day. And it would appear that’s the path it’s on.