The 'battle' between Facebook and Google Plus involves some underlying fundamental issues which will determine the future shape of the web.

There is nothing like a sensationalist headline to draw attention to polarized issues and, perhaps, oversimplify the argument. Until very recently Facebook vs Google+ was just one of them because, in reality, Google+ is nothing like Facebook.

Facebook is, and has always been, a “walled garden” with a set of data (its so-called Social Graph) which is closed to users outside it and only transparent to search engines at a layer or two and Google+ is (and has been) a set of socialising tools which can be used to create a level of folksonomy which Google’s sensitive but taxonomic search algorithm has so far lacked.

Any suggestions that somehow Google+ would ‘kill’ Facebook were an expression of wishful thinking from the masses (and there are many) who were dissatisfied with Facebook’s immature, autocratic, ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ approach to handling complaints from users on its network.

The differences between the two still persist and if anything have now been magnified. Before the Facebook f8 conference Facebook’s strategic re-positioning with Microsoft and Twitter led to a certain level of disgruntlement and charges that somehow ‘Facebook was losing its identity’ but as I argued as far back as March 2010 Facebook, whatever features it implements, has always been a place where your data is not your own and, since its their website, its management will do whatever they want, any way they want it, no matter what you say.

Facebook has always wanted to control as much of the web as it could. There are good reasons for this and they have to do with search.

It’s all About Search

Building a good search engine is incredibly expensive (as Microsoft found out with BING) and incredibly difficult as (Yahoo! discovered with their own efforts). Google has got such a good grasp on this that whatever its competitors may do they are likely to still be left behind getting crumbs off a pie which seems to be almost all Google’s.

Google search, however, no matter how powerful and sensitive it is, has always battled with SEOs who (by the nature of the job) look for ways to either game or ‘help’ the search engine rank websites on its search index as high as possible.

Google’s Panda update of its search algorithm was a much-needed sensitisation of search to get rid of spam websites and content farms which dominated the web through high-volume, low-value content and were squeezing out sites from Google’s first page which could provide real value.

In developing its powerful search algorithm Google has used the end-user experience as a yardstick. This has been the drive behind such features as Google Instant and its subsequent refinements, preview in search, website loading speed as an SEO metric and just about anything and everything Google introduces.

The basic assumption here is that search is a tool which needs to be fast, relevant and reliable. While Google can do a lot to help with speed and stability, relevancy and reliability in the quality of the search results is harder to guarantee. Indexing on the web is carried out by machines (or coded programs if you will, called bots) and this makes it very difficult to assess something as nefarious as ‘quality’.

To get round this issue Google (and almost every other search engine out there) use social cues as one of the corroborative metrics to rank a website. Because social cues (which includes things like social bookmarking, online shares of content, Tweeting, Facebook ‘Likes’ and mentions) are people driven, Google uses (where it can) your surfing behaviour and mine as an adjunct to its search engine to create a simulated contextual semantic search engine.

The reason search is so important is that without it, on the web, you will never find anything. More than that, by finding the right things at the right time, with search you create a commercial dynamic where information has real value and pixels and 1s and 0s can be translated into cold, hard cash for businesses and search engine companies alike.

So Money Talks

At the end of the day it is about money. Facebook last year made just shy of $5 billion and Google reported revenues of $9.03 billion for quarter two of 2011 (ending in June 30). The numbers are vast enough to illustrate the issue in very stark terms.

Whoever controls the best search has created a money-making machine the like of which few can imagine – Google, as it stands right now is a case in point. When we talk commerce however the pressures are such that it becomes hard to understand the other principles involved. The web is such an exciting place not just because we can get online and use pixels to make money but because we get a sense that size, the depth of your pocket and manpower do not matter as much on the web as they do offline.

A guy working from his garage, with a website, a good grasp of social media marketing and a hot idea has got the opportunity to create an online sensation and beat companies which are bigger in every way. The web has not become the latest frontier (with the unacknowledged implication that it needs taming), it has become the next step in mankind’s technological evolution, allowing us to do more things, faster, better and cost-efficiently than ever before. As such it has spawned a new class of digital workers capable of calling ‘home’ any place where there is a computer and a good internet connection.

It is this egalitarian space where one could ‘stake’ their website on that is now under threat.

The Fight is All About Data

Google makes no effort to hide the fact that its mission statement is “to index the world’s information”. At the same time their motto is “Do no Evil” and, as such, has become a guiding principle in much of what they do and how they conduct themselves and though they may not always get it pitch-perfect they have yet to act in a way which can be said to have gone against the grain of their motto.

Now the Facebook slogan is “Facebook is a social utility that connects you with the people around you”. I won’t go here into an exposition how Facebook states nothing about its intent and everything about its function nor that nowhere in anything Facebook has ever done have we come across any statements which might act as its moral compass, so to speak. To examine each company through the lens of their slogans is self-limiting and extreme. It would discount the fact that both are global corporations with a powerful dynamic guided by the profit principle.

So let’s instead do the clever thing and look at fundamentals in search not of differences but of similarities. Both Google and Facebook, at core, are after the same thing: your data. They want to know everything about you in order to build a better contextual engine.

Now, contextual engines are about a trend on the web which has only accelerated since I forecast it last year, namely, the three fronts of personalisation, localisation and socialisation. As Google CEO, Larry Page, said at the beginning of the company: “The perfect search engine, would understand exactly what you mean and give back exactly what you want.” That “perfect” search engine cannot really ever exist. Though search is becoming better and better the web and its technologies are always changing in a game which is evolving so fast that search engines, whose creators out of necessity need to use data in order to help them evolutionary steps, will always play catch-up.

There is a partial exception to this (only partial) and that is in the creation of the semantic web. This is a relatively simple idea with a complex execution. At its core the idea of the semantic web is that everything which gets put online, from a simple link to a website to a picture and its alt text, have been exhaustively described in a way which makes it easy for a search engine bot to index, assess and categorise.

In a small scale experiment (like say a university) this can happen no problem, mainly because no one has any hidden agenda, or at least if they have it does not impact on search, everyone works off the same page (i.e. they all want to find data fast, efficiently and accurately) and they all, more or less work towards the same thing. Expand this to the vastness of the web with its myriad of complex relationships, agendas, different interests and degrees of capability, knowledge and skill and you begin to realise the magnitude of the problem.

While the task may seem daunting there is a way around it and Facebook showed it, first. Mainly, within Facebook’s closed environment, the data input by its hundreds of millions of users belongs to Facebook which repurposes it in ways it sees fit. So when you and I, for instance, input our hobbies, these immediately fall into a category Facebook can use to better present content to us and which marketers can use to better advertise to us. Because in Facebook’s closed, exotic environment, data was its own to do as it pleased with, it managed, with a vastly inferior search engine, to present advertisers with the option to drill down so far into its demographics that they could choose to serve specific ads to a population of 18-22 years old, women, from Pennsylvania who were interested in cycling.

This level of targeting is something Google could only dream of doing.

Now, here’s the funny thing. I am on Facebook and I have been a Google user since its inception. Between the two of them Google knows far more about me than Facebook. Yet, when it comes to advertising, Google has a less refined ability to target me precisely than Facebook. The reason for this paradox is that Google actually respects the privacy of my data. Although it mines it just like Facebook, the company goes to great lengths to preserve anonymity and protection while Facebook works hard to get me to share as much as possible.

Facebook’s success did not go unnoticed by Google. When Facebook closed its social graph to the Google bot, Google created its own social network, Google+. And here is where the similarities show the differences. Both Google+ and Facebook are social networks. But while everything I put in the latter is owned by it, all my data, content and work in Google+ belongs to me. Should I decide to close my account I can download my data and do whatever I want with it. More than that, while Facebook is trying to get hold of everything I do in as many ways as possible, Google+ gives me the tools to share as much or as little as I want with anyone I want, whenever I want and to add to this, Google, uses the data it accumulates through all this interaction in a far more anonymous way than Facebook has ever done.

Facebook is Coming out from Behind its Barricades

The announcements Zuckerberg made at the Facebook f8 conference regarding Facebook’s Open Social Graph  are a little disingenuous to say the least. He made a big show, for instance, of the fact that social applications in websites will make it easier for you to share without explicitly agreeing. He mentioned the fact that Facebook was bringing out tools to help socialise the web and made it clear that Facebook’s focus now is on websites (which it wants to get data from) and developers (which it needs in order to progress).

The word ‘Open’ in front of the Social Graph reminds me, a little, of the way the Republic of Congo, arguably one of the most inhospitable places on Earth to anyone with a liberal streak who is not totting a massive weapon, uses the word ‘Democratic’ in front of its name, like having it there, instantly makes it so. No further questions need to be asked.

The deal, as Zuckerberg presented it was that websites will help Facebook mine the data of those who use them and, in return, they will receive exposure to the network(s) of friends those visitors have on Facebook.

As for developers, Paul Allen’s cautionary tale regarding how Facebook wooed, lost and now is wooing developers again, should be answer enough.

The point is that after remaining behind its walls for so long, spurred by Google+ Facebook is now launching an offensive, using the widespread use of its ‘Like’ button and a new raft of systems to help gather ever more data.

Why Does Any of This Matter?

If you are interested in marketing your business, creating an online brand, or simply surfing the web and having a great time, in the short-term I guess (and probably in the medium term too) the answer is that it does not matter who mines your data.

Whether it’s Google or Facebook you will still be able to carry on as usual. The Facebook offensive however with the proposed Timeline and sharing (Zuckerberg calls it ‘social’) as default, means that the shape of the web to come will be dictated by the winner. Either we will have, for instance, an ecosystem in which the end-user and his experience is the focus and everything else follows (the Google Philosophy) or we will be forced to eat crow, and accept an ecosystem which treats the end-user with contempt because, after all, when you have a huge chunk of the world’s population in your membership a single account does not matter (the Facebook approach).

Now, I work online and really love the fact that I can go anywhere and do anything and ‘see’ anything without anyone bothering me and me bothering anyone. Websites which make me jump through hoops are never visited again, I never give out more information than I absolutely have to and, though much of my career is and has been on the web and working online, I maintain as private a presence as I can. Currently I use Google+ and Facebook for marketing equally and as far as brand affiliations go I try hard to remain neutral.

Logically, whoever wins this battle will dictate much of what the web will become for me and countless other users. I am not advocating anything here in terms of ‘do this’ or ‘don’t do that’. The whole point of this piece is to lay out, as succinctly as possible, the issues involved and the consequences of each possible outcome. It is a slightly polarized view because each player involved stands at an opposite end of the spectrum.

I must hasten to add it is not as black and white as I paint it. After all Facebook plans are, at the moment, just that – plans. There are possible anti-trust issues to consider in each case and when it comes to search, contextual or otherwise, my money is on Google. This is not a call to sabotage Facebook by leaving the network either. Each choice you make, has to be your own.