Why Google Social Search Will Beat Facebook

There has been a lot of excitement over Google introducing Social Search as an experimental feature in Labs. Facebook COO Sandberg is also often quoted in this context, saying that “the web is moving from an information economy toward a social economy”. It is clear that both Google and Facebook want to be the platform that brings you relevant search results from people you trust. Who will win this battle?

Google SocialGraph API

Let us discount Microsoft and Bing for the moment, as they’re yet to catch up with Google in any case. Marshall Kirkpatrick over at the ReadWriteWeb says no one is the clear winner, but Facebook may have the strongest hand. On the other hand, Robert Scoble says Facebook is the biggest loser in the Twitter search deals.

Among the several factors at play here, such as who has the larger user base, the most important are Relevancy and Recency. Social Search will not be useful unless it is also Real-Time, and Real-Time Search will not be useful unless it is filtered by Social Relevancy.

Today, I follow several people on various social networks, who make up my “social circle”. The problem is not everyone uses the same social network for the same purpose. I follow some people on Google Reader as they share great content there, but I don’t follow them on Twitter, because they tweet mundane stuff I don’t care about. And vice versa.

This is just an example. The point is, a social contact or friend in one network doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is a relevant contact in another network. Today, I have the flexibility of deciding whether a friend is a worthwhile contact to connect on Twitter, Google Reader, YouTube, LinkedIn, Disqus, Digg/StumbleUpon, Goodreads, Last.fm, and so on. Facebook doesn’t give me this flexibility. Making friends on Facebook means I get noise from all the social activity of a contact, much of which may not at all be relevant to me.

Now consider Google Social Search. Because I follow different people in different social networks, Google knows not just who matters to me, but when and in what context. A friend I follow on Goodreads is relevant when I am searching something about books, but irrelevant when I am searching for breaking tech news. Google has the intelligence to apply relevancy to my social search. Facebook doesn’t.

Facebook Groups may try to emulate these different social networks, but I don’t think it likely that they can achieve the rich functionality developed by each of them for specific networks like books, music, etc.

Human beings on earth did not coalesce into one gigantic country, but segregated into multiple countries with their own culture and language. Eric Schmidt says that within five years, the Internet will be dominated by Chinese language content. We humans are social indeed, but not to the extent that we all congregate within one gigantic silo. Social networks on the web ultimately reflect social networks in real life. Google’s platform understands and accepts that, Facebook doesn’t. That’s why Google will not just remain relevant in the “social economy”, it has clear advantages over Facebook in winning the battle.

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  • Interesting take. I agree mostly. But how representative are you? FB gameplan would be to get 'everyone' connected to you on FB, and using goodreads, last.fm, …. applications tie-up that they already have. In fact, I got onto goodreads 'because' many people in my FB contacts were there, and it made sense to be there rather than somewhere else …

    FB can possibly use all that context too. So although I agree with your thesis in principle, remains to be seen how it shapes out.

    My guess is, not even 10% of FB users will be active google-reader users, say, and so on …

  • I am not taking myself as an example at all, so doesn't matter whether I'm representative or not.

    Even if Facebook has apps for all these services, is it able to discern whether I am following my Facebook friend on a particular app/service? The FB platform and infrastructure are not geared for such differentiation, as far as I know. With Google Profiles, each network you add to your Google Profile tells Google who you are following *in that specific network*.

    As you rightly say, FB's gameplan is to get everyone connected to you on FB, and that simply increases noise and destroys relevance.

  • I missed your “FB can possibly use all that context too” part. If that is true, then yes, the equation changes and we have a race on our hands!

    Thanks for pointing out the apps part. I missed that.

  • You used “I follow” as a part of your example, so I was asking the question. In any case, my question is simply this:

    how many people will use/update their google profiles and use them as part of 'socializing' online vis a vis same about facebook. At the moment, FB has huge advantage there, I believe. It's already a social network. Google has a long way to go there.

    Then again, on flip side, maybe the kind of people who will 'use' social search may actually be more accurately represented by the type of web-individual that you use as an example.

    I just think jury isn't out yet on this. That's all. Too many uncertainties.

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  • Great post Mahendra, and the filtering of social information is clear justification for your supposition. Do you believe there's room for a social protocol that can supersede the need Facebook or Google to own our social graph?

  • Interesting question, Mark. The question is, even if such a protocol were technically feasible, who will adopt it and why?

  • holdenpage

    Hey Mahendra

    I don't know how I missed this in my RSS reader but glad I decided to stop by 🙂

    Anyways, great post and has really made me think about a few things that I might elaborate more on later.

  • Glad you stopped by! 🙂

    Well, a lot many developments have happened after this post, and things are really getting interesting in this space. Would love to read your elaboration.

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  • It turns out Google will not only adopt such a protocol (they already started it with some others): http://code.google.com/apis/opensocial/ and http://www.opensocial.org/

  • It would be great if they were committed to it. Going by public statements, even Facebook is part of the Data Portability Group. Net result? Zilch.

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