Google vs. Facebook: Drawing the battle lines

Google's trying to hit Facebook where it hurts, and Facebook is snapping up patents that may make Google's social-media aims harder to achieve.

There's a requisite chaos to the "hacker culture" that has been central to the rise of both Google and Facebook: cobble something together, fueled by Red Bull and pizza, until it works; keep changing it and improving it, lest a competitor jump in and create something better; and if for some reason it doesn't work, just do away with it altogether. From both the inside and the outside, it can look quite messy.

Take, for example, the fact that Google has been known to tweak its search algorithm hundreds of times per year , or that the Facebook home page goes through major facelifts on a regular basis . This week, Google killed an experimental social-collaboration project called Wave that had been heavily hyped at launch; last month, Facebook's "Gift Shop" feature got the ax . That slash-and-burn, change-the-system mentality that a Valley superstar like Google or Facebook projects to the outside world applies internally, too.

Increasingly, these relatively small shifts in product and strategy are spelling out something much bigger: the two companies are, after months of speculation and prediction, really starting to go after each other.

You could put it this way: Facebook dominates the social Web, and Google dominates everything else. Google wants to wrest a bit of control of social media from Facebook; Facebook plans to use the vast network of connections and communication channels it's built to more or less conquer the rest of the world. It's the case of a giant with a glaring Achilles heel versus a smaller, more nimble player with a finely-honed skill that can attack its competitor right where it hurts.

Google, as has been well-documented, has been attempting to get into the social-networking game for years now and keeps flopping: Wave, which was touted at its debut as a potential revolution in communication , was only the latest embarrassment. Google Buzz, which some speculated could render Twitter obsolete, was beset almost immediately by privacy concerns that were easy to fix technically but may have permanently damaged its image . Google Friend Connect and the OpenSocial app platform product came across as second-tier imitations of Facebook's own developer initiatives. They were reactionary, not revolutionary.

The verdict is uncertain for Google's alleged upcoming endeavor in Facebook-poking , called "Google.Me." There's the off-chance that it won't work, and that Google will just keep botching social media, and some pundits speculate the losing streak may continue. In that case, it looks like Google has put together a bit of a backup plan: weaken some of Facebook's ties with the companies that have made it big.

For example, Google has invested as much as $100 million in Zynga, the biggest company to have risen to success on the Facebook developer platform with its arsenal of wildly popular social games. Zynga is a driver of heavy Facebook traffic and a top buyer of Facebook ad space, but it also has a history of icy rapports with Facebook that culminated in the signing of a five-year armistice, er, "strategic relationship." Additionally, this week Google reportedly outright acquired Slide, an early success on the Facebook Platform that used a ranch's worth of virtual sheep in its SuperPoke application to prove just how strong the connections of the "social graph" really were.

Facebook's offensive
But Facebook, too, is adopting a strategy of hitting Google where it hurts.

Last month, Facebook formally launched Facebook Questions, a question-and-answer product to enable users to ask questions about literally anything, soliciting answers in turn. (It should be noted that Google killed its own Q&A product, , way back in 2006.) Facebook Questions is audacious for a number of reasons: one, it's completely public, with no way to make questions or answers restricted to one's friends list or otherwise; two, it's designed so that search engines cannot index its content. Some speculated that this may be temporary because Facebook Questions is still in a limited beta, but Facebook says it's planning to keep it the way it is.

"We may consider it for the future, but currently have no plans to make questions or answers available to search engines," Facebook representative Meredith Chin told CNET via e-mail.

It was a big deal when Facebook users were first given the option to have their profiles show up in search engine listings, undermining a whole segment of "people search" sites that had recently arisen in Valley start-up circles. At the time Facebook, like many other Web start-ups and publishing properties, needed to get its content ranked high in search engine queries to boost traffic. If they weren't at the top of the front page of a Google search query, someone else would be. And all this activity, of course, fuels Google's own search ads.

Among other things, Facebook's decision to keep otherwise public Questions to itself is a sort of posturing: It's telling search engines (e.g. Google) that with 500 million people using Facebook regularly, it doesn't need to rely on them for traffic referrals anymore. The Google training wheels are off. And Facebook Questions could be the feature that first makes the social-networking site a search-query destination in itself.

A ways back, it became clear that Google and Apple were on a collision course in the mobile world, and Google was able to position itself as the "open guy" thanks to the open-source basis of its Android software in contrast to Apple's history of corporate secrecy and proprietary technologies. It won't be that easy in Google vs. Facebook: Not only do both companies have a history of social-media privacy misfires, making it difficult to pin either as the more altruistic competitor, but the prize in this madcap game of high-stakes Capture The Flag is advertising revenue--and its advertising business, like its search algorithm, is something that Google keeps under lock and key. The gospel of openness won't work here.

Or will it? This week, news broke that Facebook had purchased 18 social-networking patents that had previously belonged to erstwhile competitor Friendster. If Facebook chooses to enforce these, it could strengthen the company's control not just over the world of social-networking, but on the extent to which potential competitors--including, theoretically, Google--can implement similar ideas in products.

The last time Facebook made the news for patents it owned, these ones pertaining to its "news feed" technology , some industry thinkers decried the move as ant-competitive because they believed the technology in question should remain the property of the Web at large. Google's championing of open technologies in the Android operating system in contrast to Apple's iPhone empire appears to be showing some success . The same argument could be rehashed if Facebook starts to look like it's trying to patent and brand the entire idea of social networking.

But that's a battle tactic that didn't work when Google took aim at the Facebook Platform with OpenSocial, and reviving it may be similarly unsuccessful.

Start placing your bets--that is, if you haven't already.

 

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