Making Sense of the War Between Facebook and Google: Part 1

Over the past couple of weeks, I have pondered the competitive threat that Facebook poses to Google and vice versa. This question is of course top of mind due to the launch of Google+ (which I love by the way). This post is Part 1 of my thinking, and it will focus on the concept of platforms vs. websites.

First, I have come to believe that the competitive dynamic between Facebook and Google is really just a war for attention. Does Facebook messaging compete with Gmail? Perhaps. Does Google+ compete with the social features of Facebook? Almost certainly. These questions and many others like them are really just details however. The real question is now about which company will get a larger share of internet users’ attention. Both businesses are largely ad-based, and there are still only a limited number of humans with a limited number of hours in the day to look at ads. Facebook and Google are so big and command so much advertising market share that the battles between their individual products are really just components of the larger war for consumer attention.

So who wins in a war for attention? Facebook and Google think it’s all about the platform. It would seem that both companies believe in the same answer. Facebook and Google both strive to extend their positions as platforms, pervasive utilities that extend into the architecture of almost every site on the web. By defining a platform as a pervasive utility, I am claiming that a platform must have features of significant usefulness that are ingrained in and pervade the fabric of the web. For Facebook, the vanguard was positioning the Like button as a universal way to share content. Social widgets for commenting and other functionality followed. Facebook Platform, the system that enables developers to build applications within Facebook and actually bears the name “Platform” isn’t really a pervasive utility because it brings other functionality and content into Facebook, rather than enabling us to do things elsewhere. Facebook Connect is certainly platform-ish, since it enables us to use other utilities throughout the web.

Being a platform is inherent in Google’s DNA, best expressed through its M&A and product strategies. Following the original search product, Google bought or built products fundamental to our use of the web – email (Gmail), photo sharing (Picasa), etc. From the start, Google was a utility that sent people to other websites and served you ads once you got there. Google is a platform because its tools have a high degree of utility, and because they pervade many other aspects of our activity online – either through directly embedded functionality (YouTube videos), or indirectly through the Google ad network.

The difference between a platform and a website is where you “go”. You go to a website. It’s a destination, and it has content or features that you use while you’re there. You can’t go to a platform, because it’s everywhere. It’s like in Terminator 3 when the protagonists try to find and destroy the system core of Skynet, which of course doesn’t really exist because Skynet is everywhere. Herein lies my point – which I fully expect to be at least somewhat controversial. You still go to Facebook. You can’t go to Google. Sure, you can go to Google.com (for search), you can go to your Gmail, you can go to your Google calendar, and so on. But you can’t go to Google because like Skynet, it is increasingly everywhere, and in control of everything you do online. Facebook Connect has similar attributes, except that it points activity back inwards to Facebook.com, whereas it doesn’t necessarily matter where Google’s utilities send you, since wherever you wind up, there will inevitably be either some Google functionality or a Google ad unit.

Android makes incredible strategic sense when viewed through this lens, because the operating system is the ultimate platform – it powers, enables, and is embedded in everything you do on your Android-based smartphone. And Chrome? Forget about it. If you’re a Chrome user, then Google controls your gateway to EVERYTHING online. There is perhaps no better example of a pervasive utility than the browser. Google+ only reinforces this position. Sure, it’s “social”, and in that vein it is like Facebook. But Facebook is a destination – you go there to see, read, hear, and interact – to be social. Google+ is more like a social layer that rides on top of or is embedded in the fabric of the web. I saw this clearly once I added the +1 button to my Chrome toolbar and +1’ed a page I liked (lowercase like, not Like) on Facebook.

Platforms will always get more attention than websites. Platforms, as I have defined them, are needed to do other things online, and therefore by definition will always get an equal or greater share of our attention than the “other things” we are doing (gaming, watching video, listening to music, etc.). So, Facebook and Google clearly have the right answer to the competitive question. How can one win a war for attention? Be a pervasive utility. Be a platform.

In Part 2, I’ll talk more about websites as I have defined them, the importance of content to websites, the importance (or lack thereof) of content to platforms, and I’ll share my view of Facebook and Google’s respective content strategies (or lack thereof). If I am feeling especially provocative, I will also try to put a stake in the ground and defend the position that Google is more platform-y than Facebook.

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