Facebook, the world’s largest social networking site has caused Google several sleepless nights. Do a search on Google and you will realize that most opinions favor Facebook taking over the digital world. Even social media thought-leader, Brian Solis thinks the same.

Today, ‘social’ is the way to go. Facebook is strongly believed to be able to challenge Google on every front – Facebook email vs Gmail, Facebook group vs Google group, Facebook social search vs Google search and Facebook + Microsoft office vs Google docs… the list goes on…

Apparently, Facebook is Google’s most feared rival. The threat intensifies when Facebook has recently asked if users would like to set Facebook.com as their homepage. That simple move would reduce Google’s traffic by millions. It clearly signals Facebook’s intention to take over Google as the world’s most visited site.

In this post, we’ll discuss: (1) Facebook in brief, (2) Google in brief, (3) why social isn’t necessarily the most important element in a product, (4) why search is the key factor in this rivalry, and (5) the existing cold war between Google and Facebook.

Facebook the Great

Facebook is a great product; there is no doubt about it. With over 600 million users, it can be anything it wants to be. Any new feature introduced by Facebook is easily adopted by millions of users (say a mere 10 percent adoption rate would translate to 60 million users). With such high adoption rate, Facebook could quickly overtake Google’s products in terms of users. But that is just what we see on the surface. We also have to note that not every product can be integrated into Facebook. Only “social” products like videos, photos, places and games are in line with Facebook’s long-term vision.

Google the Great

After overtaking Yahoo, Google has been the leading Internet giant for the last 5 years. For the simple reason that it has provided quality products coupled with great user experience. Be it Search, Gmail, Google Docs or YouTube, most of us would have at least owned or used one of its products. All you need is one gmail account and you are all set to enjoy Google’s range of products. There is little social element in its products but they still serve their purpose perfectly. We search (“just google it”), read our RSS feeds and check emails with ease. We love them and they have become part of our life. It proves that not every product needs to be social; delivering the benefit is still of utmost important. After all, social media is just one chapter of the web:

“The digital world is exploding and it has so many chapters — it has cloud computing, it has mobile, it does have social, it has searches, it has so many elements. (…) Yes, absolutely it will be part of our strategy; yes it will be embedded in many of our products. But at the same time remember it’s one chapter of an entire book,” said Google’s chief financial officer Patrick Pichette.

Think Quality, Not Just Social

Google lacks the social element. Barely anyone we know uses Google Buzz (Google’s latest social media site). Google seems set to be taken over by the social phenomenon. Or is it really so? Is social such an important element to success? No, because in every product, quality is still the key and being social doesn’t necessarily equate to success. It could bring you potential users but whether they will adopt and continue to use your product depends on the quality and value it can deliver. That also explains why so many social games and applications failed on Facebook.

With that said, Facebook’s products could beat Google’s if they can integrate quality into social. But far, they have yet to match Google products. The only quality product Facebook has to offer is its social networking platform that connects us with our friends. It is of course a strong platform with high potential to scale or support other quality products. Facebook could one day be the web’s one stop destination to get things done. Besides taking part in social-networking activities, we could check emails, read RSS feeds and even work collaboratively on Facebook.

Search is Key

The idea of doing everything on Facebook isn’t too far-fetched. But to be truly ahead of Google, Facebook needs to venture into the search business, which is Google’s core foundation. It isn’t going to be easy because indexing the entire web is an expensive task. If Facebook were to move toward this direction, its search engine has to be social to provide additional value to win over users. That means, all, if not part of the search results have to be generated from a user’s Facebook network. In fact, Google has already integrated social search results with data provided by Twitter. However social search is never completed without incorporating Facebook’s data in it.

Even with social data, it’s still an uphill battle for Facebook to venture into search. There are three points to explain this. Firstly, social data might not be as relevant and valuable to everyone. This is due to the fact that not everyone is on Facebook or has an extensive network of friends to retrieve valuable data from. Secondly, the search engine business is filled with veteran players. It isn’t just Google. Microsoft’s Bing is also in the game, which is currently nibbling market share away from Google. Facebook wouldn’t have enough experience, expertise and financial backing to run a full-fledged search engine. Thirdly, even if Facebook has cash to back its ambitious plan, it would be considered a really late entrant in the search business. Facebook’s search engine needs to be revolutionary to be able to snatch market share from Google and Bing.

Google and Facebook in Cold War

To put it briefly, Facebook provides you with fun (networking, social games) while Google provides you with utility (search, email, docs ). The real conflict will arise as Facebook grows larger and starts expanding toward the utility area. Google, on the other hand, has failed to expand towards the fun area. Facebook’s 600 million users is impressive but it remains to be seen if it could successfully break out of its fun and cool image and provide products that are more for work purposes. For now, Facebook and Google are dominant players in their own sector but are aware of each’s potential threat. We are, hence, witnessing a cold war between Google and Facebook.

Penn-Olson.com by Willis Wee. Penn Olson is a tech, marketing and business blog based in Singapore.