Why Google Won't Survive the Facebook Threat

Tech journalists debate the end of the search giant

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Google's internet monopoly is certainly something to be envied. In the words of Ben Elowitz at TechCrunch, Google "had the most impressive dataset the world had ever seen; the most sophisticated algorithm to make sense of it; an audience of a billion users expressing their interest; and more than a million advertisers bidding furiously to reach those consumers at just the right moment." But is its crucial search feature vulnerable to Facebook?

According to Elowitz, yes. Google is vulnerable precisely because its dataset is, as he puts it, "dead." Its search algorithm analyzes the pages and links that users have left behind, but it has almost no first-hand knowledge of any of the users who created this content. The users are all anonymous. Facebook, on the other hand, "has created a platform that knows more than 600 million people, complete with identity, interests, and activities online." Writes Elowitz:

If Google’s business has been built on choosing which Web pages, out of all those in the universe, are most likely to appeal to any given (but anonymous) query string, think about this: Facebook already knows, for the most part, which pages appeal to whom—specifically and directly.

And, even more powerfully, Facebook knows each of our individual and collective behavior patterns well enough to predict what we’ll like even without us expressing our intent.

In Elowitz's estimation, this key difference could give Facebook a tremendous advantage in search "when it eventually decides to move in that direction."

But Matt Rosoff at Business Insider calls this idea "completely nuts." For one, he argues, a search function is "absurdly expensive." Moreover, Facebook already has a huge uncapitalized upside, as it only collects about $2 to $3 per user per year (though with 700 million users). But further than that, that is just not the way things go in the tech industry. Google will lose to Facebook, but not through a search function.

A single dominant player emerges -- Microsoft in operating systems, Google in search, Amazon in e-commerce, Facebook in social networking. Once that happens, it's extremely hard for another player to beat the incumbent by doing the same thing better... The way to win is to do something new and different that makes the old incumbent's business less relevant...

And that's the real threat of Facebook and other social companies to Google. Eventually, users will realize they can get a lot of of the information they need -- particularly shopping recommendations -- without ever conducting a search.

At Beyond Search, Stephen Arnold agrees with the premise that "search" is no longer where the action is.

Google is the past, rooted firmly in AltaVista.com-type methods. Facebook is, like it or not, the future of information access: gated, incomplete, social, and essentially cut loose from precision and recall unless intermediated through “friends.”

Facebook may not need search, but nonetheless, Arnold points out that it has its problems cut out for it.

Google is anchored in brute force solutions, and Facebook operates on a membership basis. Country club members put up with craziness from management in order to golf, have a place to park fancy cars, and eat dinner with people who are members.

For Facebook, the company seems to be on a collision course with management, design and usability, performance, and legal issues related to personal information

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.