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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Can Facebook and Google+ Coexist?

The two Internet giants are going head-to-head in a social networking battle, but cooperation could be the key to their survival.

Like oil and water or like peanut butter and jelly? Google+, the search giant’s new social network, has everyone in the tech industry speculating about whether it’s "the Facebook Killer."

The death of MySpace seems to prove that people have room in their lives for only one social network, one profile page. After all, how many different places do you need to announce your favorite TV shows? How many different places do you need to share your witty thoughts?

On the other hand, Twitter proved that "social" can come in different forms--and 140 characters is more appropriate for some witty thoughts than for others. Twitter also allows users to link certain posts to their Facebook page if they wish, meaning that if the social networks could restrain themselves from treating social networking as a zero-sum game, everyone might win.

Of course, Google and Facebook haven't played nice lately, and they probably won't now. Google has tried to index public Facebook pages for its searches, inciting the ire of Facebook, which earlier this year hired a PR company to pitch Google-negative stories to the press. And Facebook's recent partnering with Skype to compete with Google+’s Hangouts suggests that each Internet giant has the other in its crosshairs.

Theory 1: They Can Coexist Independently

Though all-out war between the two companies seems imminent (if it hasn't already begun), Google’s executive chairman (and former CEO as of this April) Eric Schmidt thinks that there’s more than enough room for the two companies to exist independently. According to a July 7 Reuter’s article, Schmidt said that Google+ will succeed just as Facebook and Twitter have because demand for entry into Google+ is high, and because Hangouts--Google’s multiperson video chat feature--is very popular with younger users.

The response is a familiar one from Schmidt, who told 60 Minutes back in 2005 that Google believed it could coexist with Microsoft’s relatively new Bing search client. Because of Google’s size and search accuracy, the company never seems to break a sweat in public, insisting that identical services can exist in tandem. But that talk might just be a PR ploy: Google and Microsoft do compete head-to-head for search advertising dollars, just as Facebook and Google+ will in the social network arena. In June, the Federal Trade Commission launched an antitrust probe into Google’s dealings, concerned that the company may exercise too much control over what we see on the Web.

Despite their face-off, both Google and Facebook have massive user bases (and a massive potential user base in the case of Google+) so it’s entirely likely that the two can and will coexist. Smaller companies such as LiveChat, which builds software for companies to offer customer service through video chat, are expecting both social networks to succeed and thrive, and are strategizing accordingly. Mariusz Cieply, the CEO of LiveChat, says that his company hopes to offer its services through both Facebook and Google+ in the near future, so that companies can, for example, provide post-sales tech support through video over Facebook or Google Hangouts. “It will be great to have both Facebook and Google Plus,“ Cieply says. “We will start with Facebook first, but we see a huge opportunity with Google Hangouts.”

The idea that Google+ and Facebook can offer people different types of social media and therefore coexist without endless hostilities isn’t crazy. People have created channels on YouTube, profiles on Twitter, AIM screen names, Flikr albums, and Tumblr pages. Surely there’s room for one more?

If Tom from MySpace, and Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook, are on Google+ then maybe everyone can get along after all.

Theory 2: They Can Coexist Only If They’re Willing to Work Together

Many industry experts believe that the ability of Google+ and Facebook to coexist will depend on how well the two companies connect with one another. Jason Shellen, head of AIM products at AOL, sees the Google+ vs. Facebook battle as a familiar story--after all, AIM coexisted with MSN messenger, and now is trying to reinvent itself to compete with Facebook chat and Gchat (the Google Mail chat client) by allowing users to set up video chats without any login or account beyond an AOL-generated URL, and AIM hopes that that URL will be shared and embedded on Facebook and Google+ walls.

“We’ve made it so you can go to Gchat and add an AIM buddy,” Shellen says of AIM’s coexistence strategy. “We federate and talk together; sometimes this false walled-garden thing doesn’t need to be that difficult.” Certainly that worked for Twitter, whose hashtags and 140-character tweets can be linked to just about every other social media hub, from Facebook to YouTube channels.

In this respect, however, Google+ is at a disadvantage. In the same recent Reuters article mentioned earlier, Google’s Schmidt admitted that talks with Facebook to allow importation of friends from Facebook to Google ended in an impasse, and talks with Twitter to integrate that service also broke down. That leaves Google+ a little less convenient for people who like to link their profiles together.

But the other loser in Google’s failed “Facebook integration” talks is Facebook, because Google has a huge user base (including people who use Gmail, Google Checkouts, or Picasa, for example), and Facebook has been butting up against a lot of negative press lately that could increase Facebook users' willingness to switch to Google+ if they have to choose one or the other..

Theory 3: There Can Be Only One Survivor

The "One Social Network to Rule Them All" mentality might be right as consumers get smarter about how to deal with social media. Judy Shapiro, a blogger for AdAge and the CEO of EngageSimply, a technology marketing firm, says that both Facebook and Google+ are in a war, and consumers will choose the victor based on privacy or on how well they can turn the social network off. “Google+ is just Google's attempt to be Facebook, and Facebook is doing its share to become Google,” Shapiro says.

In the beginning, Google had search and a way to make money through ads, and Facebook had social data. Google seems to feel that the best way to improve the accuracy of its search results is to integrate social data, something it tried to do back in 2010 when it acquired Aardvark, a company that gave feedback to questions based on the preferences of the asker's identifiable friends and followers. For its part, Facebook has gradually built an onsite platform that allows advertisers to send targeted ads based on users’ personal and preference data. It has also established a partnership with Bing to help generate revenue from all of that social data.
But Shapiro argues that the convergence in what Google and Facebook can do might not merely create a mass exodus of users from one social network to the other; it might ensure their mutual destruction. “The more precisely a network can target us [in terms of ad-sales] the more resistant we become to it,” she says. “If you marry the strength of the search that Google has with behavioral base of social media that Facebook has, that's a one-two punch. But our privacy becomes the collateral damage.” Eventually we might get smart enough to seek alternatives that let us share information with friends and family, and yet avoid sharing it with companies that have an abiding interest in monetizing our data.