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Facebook & Google – which is better at engineering, social & media?

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9 August 2010

The demise of Google Wave had me thinking on the difference between Facebook and Google as companies, and the companies’ ability to understand media and its users.

In spite of boasting hundreds of members of staff with PHDs, Google has not launched any product nearly as successful as their first one: Search.

Lest we forget, they bought Blogger, they bought YouTube after the failure of Google Video. Buzz and Wave has been spectacular failures, Latitude has not nearly been as big as it should have been. Google Maps is good, but it has a limited scope. I love Gmail, but some of my friends don’t like the way it deals with conversations.

Google Search could not be more simple from a user point of view. The real magic – the ranking of links – was conjured by PageRank, the basis of which was Google founders Brin & Page’s academic thesis at Stanford. But it was hidden under the hood of this beguilingly simple interface. Brin & Page were not much concerned with user behaviour. All users had to do is type and hit a button.

On all accounts Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg is very smart. But it’s an open question whether he has the mathematical wherewithal to build something as complex as the Google algorithm. Lucky for him he did not start university in 1995 when the web could not support a Facebook and needed a Google Search.

When Facebook launched almost a decade later  it had no single feature that did not already have a life elsewhere on the web. Picture albums? Flickr. Person-to-person messaging, Profiles, Posts? MySpace, LinkedIn and a plethora of other sites had combinations of these features.

But it was the way Facebook used and combined existing functionality that made it new, exciting & appealing to masses of users. Especially the realisation that real identities actually matter deeply to users was monumental.

And Zuckerburg has proven over and over that this street-wise savviness was not a fluke. An Application platform and the Personal Activity feed that brought the news from your crowd were added later. And both were strokes of genius.

But neither of them are amazing feats of programming. Especially the Activity Feed. Since then many other platforms, from Ning to BuddyPress to one we have built – the Guided Platform -, incorporates a feed of activities of a users’ contacts.

Facebook has also made some difficult but smart moves in response to the threat from Twitter. And Facebook Connect and the Opengraph API has been a huge success.

All of these moves did not require doctorates in engineering. What it did require is an understanding of technology and more importantly of media, how people interact with media and what they want from media.

The internet was born out of the convergence of the telecommunications, computing and media industries. Early in the net’s history engineers reigned surpreme. They still are key. But the environment is increasingly also requiring the soft skills of the media type.

The time where killer apps and services were mostly amazing feats of engineering is coming to an end. See Wolfram Alpha. Going forward it will be those that can also identify what motivates & animates people successfully that will have the real competitive advantage.

Below an interesting discussion – between Facebook CTO Bret Taylor, Search Engine Expert Danny Sullivan, Robert Scoble and Steve Gillmor on the Gillmor Gang on why Google Wave failed, Flipboard, Location (amongst other things).

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