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Google vs. Facebook: The New Media Showdown

Google co-founder Larry Page is paranoid—and justifiably so, as his company's losing ground in the social media sphere to Facebook despite its best attempts.

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The answer soon became obvious, as privacy and trust concerns caused Buzz to flop almost immediately. The hasty decision to use Gmail as the launch pad for building a social network meant that everyone in its user base was instantly enrolled—like it or not. Although Google executives moved swiftly to contain their self-created crisis, rolling out a “privacy reset” that dropped the automatic sign-up and offered clearer instructions on how to opt out and keep messages private, the damage was already done, and Buzz was widely derided as an “antisocial social network.” Nearly a dozen members of Congress expressed concern over claims that Google Buzz “breaches online consumer privacy and trust,” and asked the FTC to investigate. The Electronic Privacy Information Centre alleged that Buzz violated consumer protection law and was “deceptive,” as the service became the subject of a class action lawsuit. Meanwhile, the leading technology blog Mashable called Buzz the “biggest tech flop of the year,” and noted, “With Google’s biggest attempt at social now a mere afterthought, nothing stands in Facebook’s way.”

At the end of June 2011, Google surprised the tech world again by making yet another attempt to compete with social media leaders like Facebook and Twitter: the Google Plus project, heralded as “Real-life-sharing, rethought for the web.” Now, although Google Plus has attracted more than 100 million users since its debut  – a number far greater than Facebook’s tally at that stage in its history — the site resembles a cyber-ghost town, where visitors spend an average of just a few minutes per month. Set against the six to seven hours on Facebook, the numbers pale by comparison. Part of the problem is the fabled network effect: with Facebook and Twitter already commanding huge attention, many questioned the need for another entry in the social space. Nevertheless, Google Plus and other social networking features introduced recently will provide Google with a means of learning more about its users’ lives, a la Facebook — and to try to employ that newfound knowledge to sell more ads.

Leading industry analyst Om Malik of GigaOM is among those convinced that we are moving from the “sell-search-and-consume methodology that has become part of our basic Internet behavior and turned Google into a gazillion dollar company” to a new world of social search — which will shift power to individuals using social tools to express their opinions. In other words, it will democratize and humanize the search process by using “friends and followers” instead of algorithms to provide context to and filters for our ever-expanding amount of information.

“The company that is most impacted by these developments is Google, the shining example of the Data Web,” Malik has noted. “By deploying its awesome infrastructure and massive computer resources, Google has enjoyed an advantage over all its search competitors.” But that advantage is now disappearing, as the manner in which we find and use information on the Web is being rapidly transformed. Despite its endless efforts to succeed at being social, Google simply may be incapable of doing so. The company “lacks the DNA that would mark it as a social entity,” says Malik, and it has never “been comfortable dealing with the ‘social or ‘people’ web. Look at any of their offerings—they have the warmth of a Soviet bunker.”

Facebook’s threat will only mount following its impending initial public offering of stock, likely to be completed next month. The IPO, which is expected to raise $5 billion will surpass Google’s 2004 stock market debut as the biggest ever for a U.S. Internet company. “Larry is driven by his paranoia about Facebook,”  Ken Auletta, author of the definitive book Googled: The End of the World As We Know It. “Clearly, these are two companies at war with each other.”

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