Facebook Notches 300M Users as It Eyes Google's Crown

Facebook just topped the 300 million user mark and said it was cash-flow positive. Things are looking up for the social network as it seeks to get users to spend more time in Facebook rather than searching Google or Twitter. If Facebook begins to surface all of its real-time, it is conceivable users will spend more time searching on the social network for things they want, which means less Web traffic heading to Google and other search engines.

News Analysis: Journalists were star-struck yesterday as they scrambled to cover Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's announcement that Facebook now "serves 300 million people across the world."

Putting that McDonalds' marketing speak aside, Facebook has pulled a lot closer to Google in 2009. No, Facebook is not a search engine and it does not claim to be one. However, note something Zuckerberg also said in his post: "Because we want to make it as easy and fast as possible for the world to connect, one of the things we think a lot about is how to make Facebook perform even faster and more efficiently as we grow."

That is a nod to the fact that Facebook is working hard at bringing the real-time Web to its Web pages, a move that will capture some of Twitter's zeitgeist and vastly improve user engagement. Why else do you think Facebook bought real-time social feed aggregator FriendFeed last month?

FriendFeed co-founder Bret Taylor noted then that he was thrilled to bring many of the innovations developed at FriendFeed to Facebook's 250 million users. Make that now 300 million and counting. Taylor and his team later open-sourced the FriendFeed Tornado Web server and can sit back and watch developers write programs off it, ideally for Facebook.

These moves combine two things Zuckerberg and Co. believe in: real-time search and social interaction. Fifty million-plus users a month are flocking to Twitter. Others are using real-time search engines like CrowdEye or Collecta to see what's going on at the moment. Real-time is where a lot of the new search traffic is going. A Facebook move to the real-time Web should scare the hell out of Twitter, which lives and does with real-time traffic exchanges.

If Facebook begins to surface content entirely in real-time -- I'm not just talking about speedier search -- Facebook will increase the stickiness of its already sticky Website.

Facebook's stats for user engagement alone are eye-popping. More than 6 billion minutes are spent on Facebook each day. More than 40 million users update their status daily. More than 10 million users fan Pages. The average user has 120 friends on the site. More than 2 billion pieces of content, including Web links, news stories, blog posts, photos, etc., are shared on Facebook each week.

With all of the content users are pulling into Facebook, and all of the games and other apps third-party Facebook developers are creating, it is conceivable users will spend more time searching there for things they want. Now that is a threat because it means less Web traffic heading to Google and other search engines. For Google, users searching more in Facebook and less on its sites could be the sum of all fears.

Facebook, whom some wrote off as not having a prayer to make money after the Beacon advertising fiasco from 2007, is also showing positive financial growth.

Buried below the 300 million and counting sermon from Zuckerberg, was this nugget: "Earlier this year, we said we expected to be cash flow positive sometime in 2010, and I'm pleased to share that we achieved this milestone last quarter."

This means Facebook earned more than it spent for the first time since its February 2004 inception. Facebook is finally moving the needle in the other direction as it seeks profitability. In that respect, Facebook has miles to go before it catches Google, an online ad giant that is pulling in $17 billion a year, largely from contextual keyword ads.

Facebook is clearly getting some return from the ads it puts in front of the users who are spending 30 minutes or more a day on the Website. Facebook board member Marc Andreessen projected $500 million in sales for this year, with more than $1 billion on the horizon. Profitability is just around the corner in 2010.

Facebook's steady march on Google's crown is continuing unchecked. Don't get me wrong. People will not give up Google for Facebook. There is too much rich, historical information to be found on a classic search engine that real-time search doesn't address.

What it does highlight is that real-time is a real weapon, one with which Google has yet to arm itself.