A View from David Zax
As Google gets social, Facebook goes searching.
It all started with a photograph. In the run-up to his company’s record-breaking IPO, Mark Zuckerberg posted a photo of his desk on his Facebook page. The main feature of the photograph was a giant poster that read, “Stay Focused & Keep Shipping.” But tech journalists are something like John Travolta in that movie “Blow Out”; they’ll obsessively pore over images like this one, magnifying and analyzing for the slightest clue. And they found one in Zuck’s laptop. “Visible on the computer’s screen was a blurry image of a Facebook page and, at the top, what seemed to be an unusually elongated white box,” writes Bloomberg Businessweek. “Web pundits speculated the image showed a prototype of a new Facebook search engine.”
And according to that same Businessweek report, the pundits may not be far off. As Google, the search giant, gravitates towards social with Google+, it appears that Facebook, the social giant, is gravitating towards search. Call it Facebook+.
The report, citing anonymous sources within the company, says that some 25 Facebook engineers, led by a former Googler (Lars Rasmussen), are trying to fix up Facebook’s search engine, which, as you probably know, frankly isn’t very good. A smart search tool could help users parse the massive amounts of information created on Facebook: “status updates, and the articles, videos, and other information across the Web that people ‘like’ using Facebook’s omnipresent thumbs-up button,” per Businessweek. In the process, Facebook could capture a larger share of search advertising, which is a $15 billion industry.
To my mind, though, the “Google and Facebook are mirroring each other” narrative is a simplistic one. For Google to become like Facebook is at least a remote possibility, because Google already was social: it created Gmail, the product that just about everyone in my life predominantly uses to communicate with one another over the Internet, and a service that is constantly growing. Facebook, though, its tendency to poach Googlers notwithstanding, has no real pedigree in search to speak of.
More to the point, I don’t see how Facebook can even attempt to compete with Google on search, if Facebook is to limit that which is searchable to the content created or linked to on its site. Google’s spiders aim to index the entire Internet, or most of it. That which is social is, by definition, a subset of the Internet–the merest fraction, I’d imagine.
That’s not to say that Facebook couldn’t make plenty of loot off of improving search within its site. “There’s a huge amount of revenue waiting to be unlocked if they want to explore search-based pay-per-click advertising,” one analyst told Bloomberg. But I have trouble seeing how a more searchable Facebook poses a real threat to Google, or nudges Facebook’s identity closer to the search giant’s in quite the way that Google+ made the search giant a tad more like Facebook.