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Facebook Limits Google Live Search, But It Might Backfire

A big surprise was buried in Google’s real time search cavalcade yesterday: The teeny, tiny role that Facebook played in the news.

twitter vs. facebook

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A big surprise was buried in Google’s real time search cavalcade yesterday: The teeny, tiny role that Facebook played in the news.

Accompanied by lots of “wow! look at that!” speech, Google’s real-time search updates were the highlight of yesterday’s tech-demo. The live-updating Tweets appearing in the search data flow were championed by Google’s staff as really measuring what people are talking about right at this instant around the World. And though we know Google’s been desperate to get hold of this sort of real-time relevance for ages, and now has it, one big omission was glaring in this demo of data-processing prowess. Where the hell was Facebook? It’s got half a billion users–making it the World’s biggest social network–and likes to promote its newly-tweaked user status updates as being a finger on the pulse of the World. And yet the only data it’s contributing to Google’s real time engine is its public Pages update–the bland, less personal profiles that the average Facebook user doesn’t actually use.

Over at Mashable, Ben Parr’s dissected the reasons why Facebook might be doing this, and concludes it’s a deliberate and smart move. The reasoning boils down to two points:

  • Facebook sees Google as a direct rival, since it’s trying to develop its own real-time search engine powers within the social network itself, and Facebook connect is in competition with Google’s Friend Connect
  • Facebook has made a deal with Microsoft to give access inside its public user profiles to Bing. And Microsoft has invested $240 million in Facebook. The rivalry between MS and Google forces Facebook’s hand

Both points make sense, and are neatly tied to real business facts. But while Mashable’s thinking implies it’s a good move for Facebook, there is another way to look at this: It’s a terrible move, and one that could hand control of the real-time status update game to Twitter.

First, it’s a PR issue: Look at all the buzz Twitter gained yesterday. People sit up and listen when Google makes big changes to its system. Google just identified Twitter as the most important tool for delivering real time information to a global audience. While Twitter’s growing fast, it’s still a mystery to many users around the World…but after yesterday there will be millions more people interested in how it works and wanting to take part. Facebook’s mention, on the other hand, was almost a throw-away sentence at the end of Google’s spiel and, worst of all, it came in the same breath as mention of MySpace’s new links with Google. Being allied with the gaudy, dying wreck that is today’s MySpace simply isn’t good.

Second, real-time search from Twitter in Google “just works” in an Apple sense of the phrase. Tweets are a discrete, compact and quick-to-send means of delivering new data, and now in Google their relevance is highlighted. Facebook’s status updates can be longer, and they let you embed all sorts of media directly…but it’s a bit like comparing phone calls to SMSes: One is good for longer chats and provides an emotionally richer experience, but the other is faster, often more convenient and excellent for zapping quick, useful pieces of info off to your friends either singly or in groups. The difference between these two modes of delivering real-time status is now being dramatically highlighted by Google–particularly since almost an entire Tweet will appear on the few lines of a typical Google search result, and it’s hard to see how a rambling Facebook status update would fit in that space.

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And here’s another example of how this move works in Twitter’s favor: I picked up a couple of new Twitter followers during the day yesterday, but in the hour or so after Google’s system began to go live I gained five more, almost certainly because Googlers were finding my Tweets appearing in their real-time searches.

The upshot of these points could easily be that the billions of Googlers around the globe get used to seeing Twitter as the way to deliver or receive real-time data. And sure, they’ll see the Tweets via Google–but to take part, they’ll have to get a Twitter account and start Tweeting. While Facebook continues to limit Google’s access to Status Updates, it’s bleeding out lots of its supposed real-time data hotness, and risks losing the race with Twitter.

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I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise.

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