No one can argue that Google is the most profitable advertising company that the world has ever seen. Launching just over 14 years ago (with an IPO seven years ago) they have very quickly earned their place on the list of the top 20 most valuable companies in the world. All of this success and growth has been driven by their well-known corporate mission statement:

“To organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” (http://www.google.com/about/corporate/company/index.html)

Ten years ago – this was certainly the right goal and it has brought Google great riches. However, how sustainable is this long term goal? And further, how has the rise of social networking (specifically Facebook) affected this goal?

Allow me to explain.

When the internet first launched, there was no way to find anything you were looking for. The miracle of Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s invention (the World Wide Web) was the ability to link documents to each other through hyperlinks – but unless you knew where to start (the exact URL address of the website you wanted) – there was no way to find anything.

Search engines allowed people to find things on the internet and facilitated the rapid expansion of the web. Although somewhat late to the game (search engines have been around since 1989 – infographic: http://www.searchenginejournal.com/timeline-of-search-engine-history/search-engine-timeline.jpg) Google quickly took the top spot on the search engine hierarchy capturing 70+% marketshare by the mid-late 00’s.

Search engine dominance has always depended on two things: index and ranking algorithm. That is – the percent of the overall information on the web that has been indexed by the search engine (coverage) – and the efficacy at which the engine can retrieve relevant results from that index. Google has always had the biggest index and the best algorithm, but the recent popularity spike in social networking may threaten Google’s dominance.

Studies suggest that people spend as much as 25% of their online time on Social Networks (http://mashable.com/2011/09/12/23-percent-online/). Also – social networking has been driving an explosion of online content creation, from pictures to video to prose. However, Google can’t touch any of this material because it’s protected behind social network passwords (making it unreachable by Google’s crawlers).

The dominance of Google is predicated on their massive “one-to-many” relationship they hold with each of their users. This fully centralized model means that

1) Google is only as good as the index that it has stored on its servers

2) Google can only help you find things you already know you’re looking for (based on your search queries)

Now that people are spending increasing portions of their online time on pages that Google can’t index – and those pages are growing in number – there is an emerging problem with Google’s goal of organizing the world’s information.

Facebook is well on their way to effectively facilitating a network of “many-to-many” relationships – empowering people to exchange questions and ideas with other people they know and trust. If they can figure out how to facilitate these connections and deliver results as fast as Google, there will likely be a big shake up in the way we search for information on the internet.

For the sake of impact – consider the following scenario. You’re searching for the contact information for your long lost best friend from grade school. If you’re lucky and your friend’s name is Dan McMenamin (as in my case) – you may happen upon his LinkedIn profile on the first page of Google Search results (third listing from the top – not bad). However, what if your friend’s name is John Smith? Good luck finding your relevant Google results among the over 76 million listings triggered by that query.

Facebook vs Google
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  • I largely disagree with you.

    Your core premise, I think, is pretty simple. Namely that (i) Google wants to provide answers to people, and (ii) Facebook provides an alternative means of obtaining answers. Whereas Google is dependent on information it can scrape, Facebook lowers the transaction cost of leveraging existing social connections – e.g. asking a friend you see once a year a question is much easier with Facebook than without. Indeed, posting a question to your Wall is the easiest way of asking questions of your friends ever.

    However, I think this is a misconceptualization of Google’s business, and their weaknesses.

    Google began as – and predominately remains – a search engine “driven” company. However, their revenue stream is wholly advertising – largely per click, and per action.

    Thus, Google doesn’t want to provide answers so much as it wants to be the sole intermediary between you and the rest of the internet, so it can be the middleman for all money-generating stuff on the internet and collect a virtual service fee.

    Search is the primary vehicle for this, but they are trying to branch into different areas to become a more essential middleman for their users.

    Facebook does present a threat to Google, but not so much because it is a different means to find information – rather, because Facebook is a different middleman. If people are using Facebook to find stuff, or explore stuff, they aren’t using Google. If people depend on Facebook to literally “mediate” their online experience, Google is locked out of its cut.

    But I don’t think Google is significantly worried about Facebook locking information up inside its network. The information Facebook collects has more to do with ranking mechanisms (e.g. ranks) than with actual information per se – most of that is still created and/or published on the “wide web.”

    I also don’t think Google’s mission is outdated, per se. The world’s information is still in a massively unorganized form, and improving that is a task that could take decades, and probably centuries. Information collection is also increasing at a dizzying rate; analysis of that information will become more and more important, and Google is already doing their best to take advantage of it (witness their use of search queries to predict flu outbreaks, among other things).

    Simple being a ginormous retrieval and analysis system would be tremendously valuable – finding things to do, restaurants to go to, other ways to spend money, not to mention other applications – and would support them for as long as they wanted. It would not, however, allow them to achieve and maintain true hegemony (which they border on now), where their dominance would allow them treat the fortunes of the internet and Google as synonymous. What is good for one is good for the other, so to speak.

    I think Google is seeking the latter – real control, dominance – over the internet. Their current goal is to be the intermediary.

    Facebook is an alternative intermediary, where people’s access to the world is mediated through their interpersonal relationships (family, friends, etc). What’s worse for Google is that people HAVE traditionally experienced the world in conjunction with their family and friends, and used those relationships to mediate their experience.

    Google is presenting an “unnatural” way of interacting with the world – one both more personalized and more anonymous, but lacking in “humanity.”

    Facebook makes it much easier (“lowers the transaction cost”) of leveraging interpersonal relationships, so people can derive more benefit from them. The risk is that people may prefer the status quo, and use Facebook instead of migrating to Google’s model.

    I really think it’s two completely models, two different ways of interacting with the world, two different sets of signals people pay attention to. Google, I think, is scared because they’re not sure people will prefer their model.