Will Search Shift the Social Battlefield Between Facebook and Google?

The Clash of the Digital Titans has finally arrived. There’s Google, from its lofty perch as the search giant, and there’s Facebook, which from its social throne, has taken the mantle of display inventory kings. These two industry titans now find themselves face-to-face in no small part due to Google+’s launch.

For years, Google has tried to establish itself in the social space. Likewise, with every million new users the scale of the Facebook ad network has grown. With +Circles, Hangouts, and the rest, Google seems to have hit upon something of worth. People inside the industry and, more importantly, outside Madison Avenue and the Valley are intrigued. That said, the launch clearly caught the attention of the Social Network. Last week, Facebook responded to one of the most intriguing features of Google+, Hangouts (a group video chat application), by announcing its own solution – a partnership with Skype. Skype is the newest acquisition of Microsoft, another Google foe and one-time digital king.

But, for all the social gamesmanship that comes from this response, it’s likely to do little to halt someone from trying out or shifting over to Google+, if they are so inclined. What would it take for Facebook to evolve into an area that would keep consumers engaging and on site more than they already do? Perhaps the answer is all about the field upon which the battle is being fought. Google has clearly come onto Facebook’s turf, but it’s been attempting to do so for several years, so this is no sneak attack. However, if Facebook suddenly appeared on the search scene, well, I think it would be far most interesting.

In GroupM Search research published earlier this year, we found that consumers form a virtuous circle between the channels. While most start with search, they evolve and move into social when they feel the information available has capped and they want to find other data or get the opinions of others. Google +1, launched a few months back, was designed to be the continuation of Google’s effort (following its now ceased Twitter deal) to bring social into search and compete with Microsoft bringing Facebook into Microsoft’s index.

People don’t want to search. They want to go through a discovery phase, which is about deep and rich data. I suspect Facebook would have little interest in this and could be quite content to fully source this to Bing or just leave it outside the social walls altogether. Searchers also want to reach a destination, and that’s the play Facebook could somewhat easily make.

Imagine you seek to buy a new car, specifically a family SUV. Today, the pattern we have found suggests you use Google or Bing to identify a few candidates and then turn to your peer set to ask their opinions. In that process you may find that a few friends have liked Ford or Honda, but is that level of insight enough? Probably not. You may have to ask questions. Once you get their perspectives, you will then head back into the research loop of search.

Now imagine that instead of this, when you asked the first question inside Facebook, “Does anyone have a recommendation on a great SUV to buy?” the response is a blend of your graph and brand/third-party data. So, Facebook shows you the “likes” of brand pages, ideally with people liking specific models, not just the brand. But it also pulls in data to enable you to see which of those brands and products may be worth further consideration. This deeper search ability does two things. It connects your graph research with your extended research, but, more importantly for Facebook, it keeps you out of Google.

Brands continue to evaluate the worth of a Facebook fan and how they should buy vs. earn exposure. One way to attract brands is to give them connection points. Google built its business through the relevant intersection of content and intent. Using consumer questions in its graph and a better measure of intent could enable Facebook to not only enhance its ad properties, but also re-position the fight with a chief rival.

Regardless, the experience we have seen with Google since Bing started to gain market share suggests that innovation is most likely to be experienced when competition is present. Google+ represents the closest thing to that for Facebook since the late days of the MySpace reign. And whether or not Facebook decides to come to search, competition is present. Search and social will continue to deliver value for consumers in their experiences.

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