How Facebook's Social Web Will Challenge Google's Search

Last Updated Apr 22, 2010 1:58 PM EDT

For over a decade now, search has been the dominant paradigm on the Web. To Google (GOOG) became a verb meaning to understand the world, and companies began to live and die by their search result rankings. Yesterday Facebook introduced a new paradigm, a way of understanding the entire Web that is based around the social, not the search.

Google's triumph was to design a search engine that used the network of connections between different websites to decide what results were relevant. Facebook's new Open Graph system does the same thing, but instead of using links between sites to measure relevance, it looks at social networks for the connections between people, places and things.

For a full rundown of how the Open Graph system works, check out my post from yesterday. In brief, this new approach allows users to experience the entire Web through the prism of their Facebook profile. If I like a certain book or movie on an outside partner, I can click a button to share that preference on Facebook. If my Facebook page knows that I like Korean food, an outside partner like Yelp can tailor my experience to reflect that. "It means the Web can become a series of personally and semantically meaningful connections," says CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

The key to making this approach work is having enough sites on board, and as my colleague Catharine Taylor notes, Facebook seems to be coming out of the gate strong. There are no solid numbers yet, but there seem to be around initial 30 partners, including heavyweights like Amazon (AMZN), Microsoft (MSFT), News Corp (NWS), Yelp and Pandora. There are also hundreds of sites that were already offering these capabilities through Facebook Connect, which the company introduced two years ago.

The real magic will happen if these sites can collect enough data to create Web experiences that are robustly integrated. If the Wall Street Journal knows from my Pandora account that I love the band MGMT, it could highlights articles about them for me. And if IMDB knows through Facebook that three of my close friends really liked a film, it could recommend that director to me on my next visit.

People love having websites customized to fit their personal tastes, but they also hate having to create accounts and passwords for dozens of different sites. If Facebook can become the universal identity that allows websites to offer an integrated experience, that will become the center of a powerful new engine on the web. As for profits, all this data will give Facebook and its partners the opportunity to offer customization and targeted advertising to a degree never before possible.

"The 10 blue links paradigm, popularized by Google, appears to be reaching its limits," writes Om Malik in a post on why Google should fear the social web. In an Open Graph world, users will turn to their social connections to figure out where to shop, what to watch and when to travel. All this is already happening of course, and Google has even entered into the social game. But Facebook's size and the depth of its partnerships give it a huge advantage in this arena. In place of search, says Zuckerberg, "The open graph puts people at the center of the web."

  • Ben Popper

    Ben Popper writes at the intersection of culture and technology. His work has been published in the NY Times, Washington Post, Fast Company, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic and many others. He lives at www.benpopper.com.