Just a few days ago it was announced that according to ComScore, people spent more time on Facebook than Google; something that prompted a wide variety of claims from “google is dead” to “facebook will become the internet” or something similar. The reality is that FB and GOOG are moving in two different markets, and the failure of previous social experiments like Orkut or Buzz is actually related to the fact that Google internal machinery, so sophisticated and tailored to help manage “the world’s information”, is not appropriate for something like social sites.
In fact, Google manages everything with the assumption that data is, in some sense, relevant and useful in a generic sense, at least for a subset of its users. The concept of “usefulness” is at the core of the famous PageRank algorithm; it uses the idea that links and connections are a substitute proxy for “interest” – and mixes in the background information on who links what to create and propose potential links that maximize the probability that someone searching will go through and find something that is, well, interesting. This way, the said user will come back to Google to search something, and this will bring back more ad revenues.
This is good and correct – unless it’s data that is ephemeral, like the massive amount of drivel that is generated by social site users. The updates on Facebook users’ walls are mostly uninteresting for anyone not part of the same social circle – knowing that “Justin just spilled its coke on all its textbooks! What fun!” is probably relevant to people that know Justin, whoever he is, and maybe some textbook vendor, that will probably get a new customer. The value of Facebook is in its inclusiveness, that is the fact that a large number of social groups of all sizes are within the same platform, and share at least partly the same social graph. But – there is no need of a PageRank on the backoffice of Facebook search, as all the search that is necessary is already structured within the (user generated) social graph itself.
That’s why Google seem unable to turn its social acquisition into something integrated within its own services: the engine behind Google is tailored for a different set of parameters – and useless for social sites. Which is a pity, because some of the technology that Google developed to address this market (like Wave) was quite interesting, but – again – simply ill suited to such a market.