Every time you go online you are entering a war zone. It might not feel like it, but there is an almighty battle taking place between two superpowers and you are caught in the crossfire.
Welcome to the war for web supremacy. The super powers, if you haven’t already guessed, are the search behemoth Google and social heavyweight champion Facebook. The prize is you and your data.
Sure, there are other combatants in this war; Twitter, Apple, Bing, LinkedIn…even Yahoo!, but they are merely involved in skirmishes and are open to being co-opted into alliances with the main players. Amazon currently appears to be Switzerland (more about them another time).
The nature of systems like the web is that monopolies emerge. We have a dominant search engine in Google, a dominant online encyclopedia in Wikipedia, a dominant retailer in Amazon, a dominant auction site in eBay, and now we have a dominant social network in Facebook. That’s normal and has been happening in business for centuries.
But what happens when two different monopolies decide to battle for a middle ground? That’s where it gets interesting, and that whats happening now. Facebook and Google share common goals but differing philosophies.
Facebook is trying to create its own version of the Web, where you never really have to go anywhere else. They want everything to happen and stay on Facebook.
Google want to control the flow of information of the Web and how you access that information. They don’t mind as much that you might go elsewhere, just that you get there via one of their properties (and read their ads along the way).
Google has been the dominant force on the Web over the last decade. Search was the Web’s number one function and Google were (and still are) the King’s of search. But then Facebook exploded across the globe as the popularity of social networks grew. Now Facebook is closing in on 1 billion members and presents a serious threat to Google’s existence.
This is why we have seen Google+ launched. Its the search engine giant’s response to Facebook. Its an attempt to merge search and social in a way that will keep Google relevant and massively profitable. Many of the ideas in Google+ are good ones and designed to address some of the frustrations Facebook members express.
Google+ is already closing in on 100 million users after around 7 months of existence and is tipped to reach 400 million users within a year. Its the fastest growing social network in history. Many will argue that this is being driven by the way Google are forcing sign-up through their massive Gmail service, and the number of active users are much lower. Many are also expressing their resentment of such tactics, but all is fair in love and war and when the stakes are this high a little bit of grumbling is a small price to pay.
The latest development for Google+ is to lift the 18+ age restriction and allow teenagers to join, just like Facebook. Except the Google army are promising a “safer” experience for teens than they’ve experienced on other social networks. This move should see further growth of G+.
Google is also now blending social network data into search results. First they had an arrangement with Twitter that was heading in the right direction, but that alliance faltered last year (I suspect they will kiss and make up eventually). Now there is the hamfisted Google+ Your World which blends G+ information into search results, but as many complain, is hardly a reflection of our social “world” at this stage.
A great response to Google+ Your World was the rapid deployment of “Don’t Be Evil” by a handful of Facebook and Twitter engineers which clearly demonstrates how disingenuous Google have been.
Mind you Facebook is fighting just as hard. We have seen plenty of changes to Facebook over the last year or so including the new Ticker / Timeline. Every time Facebook makes major changes or introduces new Terms and Conditions there are groups threatening to boycott it. But we stay and we accept it and move on, and Facebook know this.
Don’t expect Facebook to take the Google+ assault laying down. I almost guarantee that they are busily building their own version of search to fire back at Google. It won’t be just another search engine, it will be a totally new take on search. That will be interesting to see unfold.
The biggest danger is a serious threat to the open and interoperable web we currently enjoy. Facebook see themselves as a platform. Google are heading steadily in the same direction. (Of course Apple has always wanted this and Amazon have been stealthily working towards this…but that’s for another post). The result could require us to move between platforms rather than a seamless web.
So who should you trust? Which side should you back in this war? Its hard to say. Most wars end with winners and losers, or in the business world, leaders and second place. With two giants fighting for the same turf despite vastly differing backgrounds its an unprecedented battle. Ideally, its best if there is no major loser here. The best outcome would be that the major players decide to accept that there’s room for all and work out how to work together. Utopian? Maybe, but its the best chance of us maintaining an open web.
One thing is certain; the future of the web will be shaped by this fight and the strategies the combatants use to win. Search and social now touch on nearly every aspect of the web and in an interconnected modern society we cannot avoid them. Putting all personal preferences and philosophical arguments aside I’d suggest its probably necessary to have a bet each way and make sure you are properly set up with both sides. Its hard to write off either Google or Facebook at the moment. They’ll both be likely to serve you well for quite a while, and if one finally crumbles (which won’t be a sudden thing), you won’t be playing catch up with the winner.
Expect to see plenty more changes and new features from Facebook and Google over the coming year. Some will be good, some will be bad, but all will be another shot in the war for web supremacy.