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Can Facebook’s Walled Garden Defeat Google?

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The Showdown

There’s a showdown brewing between Facebook and Google, and it’s going to be a good one. Both of the tech titans are making big bets on the very things that their companies stand for.

For Google, it’s always been about the algorithms, the engineering-based technical programming that has indexed the internet for us and turned their company name into a verb.

For Facebook, it’s always been about relationships, connecting the world online and sharing photos, experiences, and day-to-day life with those that you love.


Walled Garden

To see where this battle is heading, you need to go back to where it began. I dug up a great article called “Great Wall of Facebook: The Social Network’s Plan to Dominate the Internet – and Keep Google Out” that was in WIRED Magazine back in 2009 – more than 4 years ago (ages in internet time). In it, author Fred Volgenstein talks about the Walled Garden that Facebook was building, protecting all the information that was posted within their service from the prying eyes of Google.

Step back and think about two things for a moment. First, think about how much information you’ve shared on Facebook. If you’re like most people, that includes hundreds, if not thousands of status updates, photos, videos, comments, likes, and more. Second, think about how many of those appear in a traditional Google search. Virtually nothing!

I’ve probably written thousands of words within Facebook, yet a single Google search will only bring up one thing – the link to my profile. If I lock down my settings properly, nothing I’ve ever written within Facebook is exposed to the outside world.

Facebook creates a massive shift

sheryl-sandbergYou have to remember how different things were 5 years ago. Facebook “only” had 200 million users and was not yet profitable.

Google seemingly knew all, tracking trends and data through anonymous web searches and browsing history.

But Facebook ushered in something different – real people.

In an age of fake user names on MySpace pages, comments, and message boards, the social network got people to reveal their real name, their real photos, and their real friends.

Then, Facebook started to get more Google-like, hiring a now-household name Sheryl Sandberg away from her VP position at Google to become COO of Facebook. It was reported that up to 9% of Facebook’s staff were formerly from Google.

Zuckerberg’s Vision

Even 4 years ago, you can see the long term planning that Mark Zuckerberg and his team were forming. In the WIRED article, Volgenstein says:

“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.”

This represents a shift from Google’s way of thinking. He continues:

“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.”

In short, his bet is that:

Human Relationships Matter More

Where this will play out 1 – Search

The first showdown battle will be in search. Have you used the new Facebook graph search? It’s pretty powerful. Release in Beta in January 2013 and rolled out to all users by August, it’s simply Facebook’s way of searching for people, places, and things within Facebook.

You can search for things such as:
– Music my friends like
– Photos I’m tagged in
– Friends that like The New Yorker Magazine

But as you go deeper, you can see that it might pose a threat not just to Google, but to other major sites.

The new Yelp:
You can search for things such as “Chinese restaurants near Times Square that my friends like.”

The new Match.com:
Female friends of friends that are 28-35 years old, live in New York, and like skiing

The new Monster.com
Friends of friends that graduated in Communications in 2013, live in Los Angeles, and speak Spanish

And yes, the new Google:
Friends who like Leica camera


In each of these scenarios, you could do the searches on the web, and even see ratings and reviews, but they are from strangers, not your network.

Do you trust a job candidate more if you can speak to a mutual contact about them? Wouldn’t it be nice to hear first-hand about what’s good at a particular restaurant? What if you could ask your contact, is that person really as cute as they look in their photo?

Take the camera example. If you search for a new DSLR camera to buy, you might see results from Amazon or Best Buy or your local camera store, with Google ads alongside them. Do you trust a sales rep that might be on commission?

But what if you could not only find friends that owned these cameras, but also chat with them to get their experience, and even use Facebook search to say “Show me photos of friends that like Leica camera.” You could actually see the photos that they’ve taken.

Where this will play out 2 – Mobile

Facebook has 2 platforms that you probably know about: an app for the iPhone and an app for Android:

– Out of millions of apps on the marketplace, one quarter of time is spent on Facebook properties: 23% on Facebook’s app, 3% on Instagram
– 819 million out of 1.15 billion – 73% of monthly users access Facebook through a mobile device
– Mobile users are shifting their usage, spending 11 hours a month on mobile vs. 6 hours a month on desktop

However, the most intriguing play is Facebook home.


This is a much fuller experience, available on a few select Android phones (Apple isn’t letting them get near their OS). You don’t launch an app to get to Facebook, you just turn on your phone.

– Cover Feed shows you instantly what people are sharing
– Chat Heads is their SMS system, bypassing traditional texting and letting you chat while using other apps such as maps
– Notifications give you updates from calls, events and updates all in one spot, not in several different apps

What it means to Apple

Facebook home is a threat to Apple in that it might lure people to buy Android devices over Apple devices. While Apple has a strong ecosystem in place, retaining customers familiar with macs, iPods, and iPads, if Facebook can redefine how phones are used, there might be a switchover.

What it means to Google

The irony here is that Facebook and Google’s Android have the same philosophy… open, shared, and free use of systems. But Google better watch its back.

Facebook doesn’t need to spend time and energy building its own phone or its own OS… they can just piggyback on Android’s free and open UI, customizing it however they want.

Now appearing on a few HTC and Samsung phones, the danger here for Google is that this becomes the default operating system loaded on new devices. If it takes off, people will want to buy phones that have Facebook home preloaded. The more it succeeds, the more it could push away Google features.

Betanews said “Facebook Home so completely takes over the user experience – homescreen, notifications and messaging – there is little room left for Google+”

What that could lead to is users defaulting to Facebook’s mobile search, mobile ads, mobile payments, and the context behind all their mobile activities.

Friends vs. Algorithms – the battle begins

In a battle of Google’s algorithms and Facebook’s social graph, who will emerge victorious? Can Apple hold onto their tightly constrained ecosystem, or will users flock to Android where Facebook’s search and connections take on Google own ecosystem of search, Gmail, chat, docs, and Google +?

Stay tuned… the first grenades are being thrown over the walled garden.

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