TechCrunch's Erick Schonfeld rekindled discussion of an interesting but dubious idea Dec. 28: a combination of search king Google and social network king Facebook.
Google and Facebook on the surface are companies whose strengths clearly complement each other's weaknesses as far as Web services go. Google has unparalleled search capabilities while Facebook has nailed the notion of the social graph on the Internet.
Both companies continue to augment their crown jewels, but neither seem particularly adept at doing what the other can do well.
Google's iteration of a social network is Orkut, popular in Brazil, but not in the United States. Google's new Friend Connect effort lets visitors join a Web site, see other users of the site, and participate in social networking activities such as commenting on and rating content.
But Friend Connect is really young and there is a no social hub or well from which to draw users. For example, eWEEK colleague Jim Rapoza put a Friend Connect button on his Emerging Technologies blog. I signed up for it easily enough, but don't really have a use for it. It won't help me chat with my friends the way Facebook will. In fact, I'd forgotten I'd signed up for Friend Connect on Jim's site until writing this post.
Conversely, Facebook's search is as weak as Google's socialization features are tenuous. Ideally, the two together would form some great symbiotic relationship, blending search and the social graph for the ultimate Web experience for millions of users.
Search and social graphs are great entry points to the Internet, but seeing as Google could eat Facebook many times over (once $15 billion, Facebook's valuation has a big question mark attached to it), let's assume Google buys Facebook. What could this provide us with? As Schonfeld writes:
"If you could search your friends' thoughts, interests and activities, would that be a better search experience? In many cases, it would be. Searching for restaurants, books or movies would turn up recommendations from people you actually know. If you are researching a trip to Florence, Italy, you might discover ten friends who have been there already, and could ask for advice on what to do. These scenarios have been the dream of social search for a few years, with both startups and search engines taking a stab at it. But so far it's been a failed dream."
He goes on to explain the failures of other social Web outposts, such as Yahoo 360 MyWeb. And there are a number of startups out there that have yet to gain traction enough for a Google, a Microsoft or a Yahoo to buy them. When was the last time you used Lijit, Delver, Mahalo, Wikia Search, Scour, Eurekster, et al.?
What, you've never heard of them? Well, if you're reading this blog, you must have heard of some of them, or even use some of them. But these sites were supposed to take off in 2008. So much for that. That doesn't make them less important, it just means that what place they have, if any, at the intersection of Google and Facebook has yet to be rationalized.
One such application that attempts to sit there is Sidestripe, a Facebook application that bolts onto Google search to show you whether anyone in your social network has expressed interest in well, what you're interested in, Schonfeld notes
It also indexes all your friends on Facebook and parts of their profiles so that when you do a search on Google, a box with Sidestripe results appears after the third result, giving you a sense of whether any of your friends might be experts on the topic, he wrote.
Why the review/advertisement of Sidestripe? It's more of an example, really, as Schonfeld argues that if we could add Facebook Connect -- the company's alternative to Google Friend Connect -- to Google search, instead of using Sidestripe, this would turn on social search in results.
He further acknowledges Friend Connect as an obstacle to such a move, but noted that this isn't Google's strong suit, implying that Friend Connect is, or is at least headed for, failure. Our contacts are on Facebook, so it makes sense that we would want to stick with that, but enjoy the power of Google search, Schonfeld argues.
This would be great if it weren't for the fact that Google views Facebook with the kind of respectful and healthy fear and loathing that Microsoft should have accorded Google when it was surging up through the Internet ranks years ago.
Notice that while Google's search is exceptionally proprietary, Google's OpenSocial and Friend Connect are pointedly open source.
Google knows Facebook is a threat to its online ad market and so, using open source as a veiled hammer, Google beats away at Facebook. The OpenSocial folks in particular are keen on neutralizing Facebook's walled garden with open APIs and, generally, openness for all.
Google guys like David Glazer and Joe Kraus are smart to pound the open-source drum and shrug their shoulders when asked why Facebook doesn't work with Friend Connect. It makes Facebook look proprietary and evil, not unlike the way the Linux vendors such as IBM and MySQL made Microsoft out to be a closed, soul-sucking demon from high-tech hell. In the meantime, Google's search and advertising domain continue to grow.
Facebook, which is not fooled by Google's wolf in woolly open-source clothing, is healthily wary of Google. But it comes armed with a killer social network of over 130 million users and an apps platform, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants his baby to carve its own path and see where it leads without Google.
So, no, I don't expect Google and Facebook to combine any time soon, nor do I expect them to partner. The companies are headed on similar paths and may well collide, the way Google has begun butting heads with Microsoft.
How this will play out in 2009 is anyone's guess, but we won't see Google and Facebook buddying up too much. If Facebook does eventually support Friend Connect, it will not be a good sign for Google. It will indicate that Facebook doesn't view Friend Connect as a threat to its Facebook Connect service.
I can sooner see Microsoft buying Facebook than Google. This isn't as much a stretch given Microsoft's current stake in, and healthy advertising relationship with, Facebook, though again I suspect that while Facebook loves Microsoft's protection from Google, it is just that -- protection.
Facebook wants to follow its own path.