It's a constant question to which there is never a satisfactory answer. Google Executive Chairman was asked by PBS correspondent Gwen Ifill this week if Google could beat Facebook at its own game" vis-a-vis the Google+ social network.
As you can see from the clip, Schmidt, ever the political animal, replied:
"It's very hard to beat a fast-moving incumbent in exactly the same game in technology because it changes so quickly. What you have to do is you have to find a new problem and do that much better than they are, and that's what we're trying to do. And if you do that, you can ultimately win very large."
That is CEO speak for "no." Google cannot beat Facebook as it currently stands.
Facebook's network is massive--over 800 million users and counting--and if you think those folks will drop will their preferred social network for a newer, in some ways shinier version of the same thing, you miss the point.
Google+ has everything Facebook has but the people--and the social ads. It lets users share status updates, photos and videos. Google+ Hangouts feel fresh but have limited application.
Users may control their privacy features. Google+ is constantly improving with new features coming out at a pace Facebook doesn't touch, but these features are largely minor.
What Google has to do is win the war of attention management: Getting users to stay on Google+.
Schmidt doesn't specifically address how to do this. So let's consider what Schmidt could be referring to when he said you have to find a new problem and do it much better.
I believe it's closely tied to something search expert John Battelle has been exploring recently in his storied career: filtering signal to noise. Check out this video promoting his new book, "What Hath We Wrought?":
Start at the nine-minute mark, and you'll hear Battelle talk about the Web being so large and the content so massive and persistent that it's tough to signal filter from noise. He started exploring this first with search as a way to do this. But that's gotten old in the tooth with the Web growing so massive. We need something more exacting and precise.
There is so much crap floating in the social ether on Facebook, and now even Google+, that it becomes frustrating to manage and filter.
I strongly believe--and I keep going back to this well--that the answer lies in serendipitous or autonomous searches, whereby information users want to seek them out rather than making them type content in a search box, whether it's on Google.com, Google+ or FacBook.
I'm not just talking about notifications about people following you. I'm talking about notifications that friends X, Y and Z are convening a Hangout at such and such a time to watch something.
I'm talking about sales deals from Google Offers that stream to users; via Google+--that's right, the ability to complete daily deals Offers through Google+.
I see Google Places local business search closely tied with Google+. Marissa Mayer, Google's geo head, has acknowledged she has to do more Google+ integration. Imagine Google+ becoming this massive platform for local businesses to target consumers.
Google Apps. We know it is as collaboration platform. Imagine being able to share anything you ever did in Google Apps on Google+, prompted by context. You have a friend interested in a topic, who asks for help via Google+. Google+ searches your Docs account and pulls out helpful content for that friend.
In short, imagine Google+ in the future as not just a place where people go to share information, but a place where Google's vast well of Web services help suggest content to users based on their previous searches or Gmail activity.
Looking further ahead, I expect an advanced, sophisticated Google Voice Search system to make its way to Google+, allowing users to speak into their computer microphone to post status updates, photos, videos and even consummate those local deals by speaking. Think Apple's Siri for Google+.
This is forward-looking and I'm not even certain totally technically possible, but I have to think Google could do some of this within the next five years to be truly disruptive. Whether or not the consumers will be ready is another matter.
It's a delicate balancing act, but one that's well worth watching.