How Should I Compare Thee to Google?

First published September 20, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

There is a substantial amount of online speculation being generated around the question of where Facebook is going, and will it beat Google?  John Battelle is currently drafting a list of questions, including those two, to run past Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg at the Web 2.0 Summit.

At first glance, asking if Facebook can beat Google is a bit like asking if a penguin could beat an aardvark.  Beat it at what? What’s the contest? Or, perhaps more appropriately, asking whether your neighborhood can beat your table saw. Talk about comparing apples and oranges — and at least those are both fruit. Facebook is a community and Google is a tool.  But the question may not be as farfetched as it seems, because undoubtedly, as each grows and explores new monetization opportunities, more common ground will emerge between the two.

The Next “Google” Is….

To be honest, I don’t quite understand this compulsion to compare every new online business model to Google.  It’s a bit like comparing every business in your city to a successful grocery store, or a gas station.  Businesses are unique — and this is true whether you’re looking online or on Main Street.  They have different revenue engines, different objectives, different customers, and different ways to connect with those customers.  I suppose you could compare bottom-line revenues, this usually being considered the lowest common denominator with most businesses, but I’m not sure what the point is in that.  What are you trying to prove?  The success of the company?  If the supermarket makes 150 times as much as a coffee shop, does this mean the supermarket is 150 times more successful?

Facebook: A Sense of Place

Nevertheless, let’s return to the question of whether Facebook will supplant the Google juggernaut.  Let me spend a few minutes looking at the inherent differences between the Facebook model and the Google model, at least as far as they sit today.  Facebook is an online environment, a community, and as such it’s a totally different animal than Google.  The nature of the interaction with users is completely different; the intent of the site is completely different.  Facebook creates an online space, and search is only incidentally used to navigate that space.  True, as the space becomes larger and more rich, search will become more important as a core functionality within Facebook. Communities need to be functional (something that Facebook seems to get better than any of its competitors). They need infrastructure, and because searching is fundamental functionality no matter where you are online, the same will be true in the Facebook community.

Google: The Right Tool

And it’s that core functionality that has allowed Google to grow and prosper while the many predecessors to Facebook have emerged, flourished briefly and died on the vine, including Google’s own Orkut.  Google is, right now, still the Swiss army knife of the Web.  When it comes to online functionality, and in particular, finding things online, Google is the undisputed champion.  I’m currently mulling over the concept of how we navigate online and physical spaces and the fact that, while we need spatial cognitive maps to navigate our hometown, we don’t need them to navigate the Web. There is no static physical 3-dimensional space that we have to memorize routes through.  Online landmarks occupy no physical location. Rather, we have a conceptual space, and we use search to navigate based on informational proximity, rather than physical proximity (thanks to Nico Brooks for planting this virulent little “thought weed” in my rather overgrown mental garden). Google has been tremendously successful because it’s the knee-jerk choice for millions of consumers to navigate the Web, looking for stuff to buy.

Twains On A Collision Course…

So, that’s a very quick view of how the two properties diverge. But let’s look at how they share similarities. For all Google’s success as a tool, it longs to be more than that. The introduction of iGoogle, which will be driven by Google’s moves into personalization, will make it more of your own online, conceptual space, encroaching on Facebook territory. And Google wants your iGoogle portal to be the place you organize the ever-increasing functionality of the semantic Web. That objective puts it on a head-on collision with Facebook. Both are encouraging an open platform development ecosystem where developers can plug new functionality into their infrastructure.  This last note is somewhat ironic, because philosophically, Microsoft has always wanted to be the one to create the development infrastructure of the new Web. Looks like another case where the big M was left sputtering at the starting line.

Facebook, in turn, is looking to be the place where you define yourself as an individual in the new online landscape. It wants to be your home in the emerging online “cloud.” Their exponential growth is nothing short of amazing. Other than Linked In, I have never received a significant number of invitations from any social network. But in the past two months, I’ve received more friend invitations from Facebook than I have linking requests from Linked In. And these are primarily people in my age group, so they’re hopelessly old and far removed from anything resembling a “cutting edge.”

My 14-year-old daughter is aghast at the notion that I even have a Facebook account. It’s akin to me tagging along with her and her friends on a visit to the mall. Our general manager, a grandma (although a very funky grandma) is hopelessly addicted to Facebook. Obviously, there’s more here than your usual “flash in the pan” social network. As Facebook incorporates more online functionality for the individual, and Google looks to create a sense of personalized place for that same individual, expect the two to go head to head.

I’ve always thought that the importance of “favorite” places online has been somewhat disregarded. We are creatures of habit, and unless we’re looking for something out of the ordinary, we’ll probably keep treading down the same online paths over and over. That’s why every new start-up is at an immediate disadvantage, unless it can provide something sufficiently remarkable and differentiated from what previously existed. Google did this, and it appears that Facebook is on the same path. And in that way, these two do beg comparison.

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