The Showstopper

by Charles Miller on March 14, 2012

I couldn’t even get my own teenage daughter to look at Google+ twice, “social isn’t a product,” she told me after I gave her a demo, “social is people and the people are on Facebook.”

While superficially plausible, not to mention pithy enough to fit in a tweet, Ex-Googler James Whittaker’s summation of the fate of Google+ seems to ignore the fact that previously, the people were on MySpace.

Still, that's no excuse. What Facebook did to the social networking market should be entirely familiar to Google. It's exactly what Google did to the search market.

In the late 1990s there was a glut of search engines, names like Altavista, Hotbot, Excite, Infoseek, Lycos, and Yahoo, each with their own strengths and foibles. Which of them was ‘best’ changed from week to week. There was even a secondary market for products that would query multiple engines at a time and aggregate the results.

The dance stopped overnight. Google released a category-killing product that learned from all the mistakes the other players had made—cramming the homepage, selling preferential placement, displaying too many similar results—and poured the secret sauce of PageRank™ on top.

All this done while the Internet was still growing exponentially, so the majority of today's Internet doesn't remember there was a time before Google.

Google has put itself in the position where its search platform is powerful enough, popular enough and robust enough that the company can respond to pretty much any threat in the search space. The only two dangers are complacency, where the company gives some competitor enough breathing room to outpace them, or some kind of transformative innovation that makes traditional search engines obsolete.

And that is where Facebook is with general purpose social networking. The “social” space has a lot of breathing-room for players outside the Facebook model, but anyone looking to be a one-stop social web shop has to deal with the fact that Facebook is the showstopper.

Facebook learned from all the mistakes the others had made—poor design, ugly custom profiles, a lack of things to do once you'd added all your friends—hooked into clever viral touches like the need to create an account to see your friend’s party photos, and packaged everything in a slick platform that they could then use to sell your attention to third parties without you ever leaving their service.

All this done while social networks were still growing exponentially.

Incremental improvements like video chat and new ways to categorise your friends aren't going to beat it, because Facebook can just watch which of your features are popular, and copy them on top of its already winning platform. To beat Facebook in the general social networking stakes, either Facebook has to get complacent, or your idea has to transform the social space entirely.

Previously: For Science

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