Sergey Brin, Rupert Murdoch, Steve Ballmer and Mark Zuckerberg are stood on the main street of a windswept desert town. The Good, The Bad, The Ugly and The Ginger, squinting at each other through drifting clouds of hot, red sand. A mournful lament plays on a flute and a rattlesnake shakes its song of death from under the boardwalk outside the saloon. At stake not so much a fistful of dollars as the whole goddamn internet. It’s a fight that’s getting dirtier by the day. Zuckerberg spits out his Juicy Fruit and glances from under his stetson at Brin. “My move”, he growls. Or kind of simpers, actually.
OK, so the reality is a little bit drier than that. Instead of guns and fisticuffs on Main Street, the weapons are those of the corporate boardroom: the media and expensive legal manoeuvrings. But the future is at stake here as the four media/tech giants each try to protect their own vision of how the future should work.
We’ve recently seen Google throw Bing’s reputation under the bus with some shrewd PR of their own (although who was playing dirty here isn’t all clear) and now Facebook have been caught trying to do the same to Google. A series of anti-Google stories have been appearing the US media – mainly centering around Google’s attitude towards privacy.
PR agency Burson-Marsteller, who work on behalf of Facebook, recently hired ex-political commentator John Mercurio to write on their behalf. Focussing his attention on Google’s “Social Circle” experiment, which has been a relatively quiet addition to the SERPs since 2009, he offered to ghost write opinion/editorial pieces for various high profile media outlets such the Huffington Post and Wallstreet Journal.
The tone of these articles was that Social Circle was a matter of genuine concern to users interested in protecting their privacy online. Finally, pitching the story to privacy advocate Christoper Soghoian, he came unstuck when Soghoian published the email exchange. It didn’t take long for the trail to traced back to Facebook, on whose behalf Mercurio – through Burston-Marsteller – was ultimately working.
In hagiographic shorthand, Facebook were trying to get negative stories about Google placed in the press.
Now there’s a lot of handwaving and running around about this as though this is something enormously evil. The fact is that there are legitimate concerns about Google Social Circle. Do you feel happy that Google is putting results into your SERPs based on the activities of your friends? Maybe you’re not. But did you know that they do this, and are you aware of exactly how much stuff Google really knows about you? As the fresh-faced internet professional you are, you probably know all this and treat it accordingly. But to Uncle Kenneth, this is a big deal.
The main problem here is really the pot attempting to call the kettle black. Facebook is hardly renowned for the privacy it brings to your life.
So, just like Google tried to slap down the advance of Bing by creating a story about Bing using Google’s data and thus calling Bing’s ability into question, so Facebook are trying to sow seeds of doubt in your mind about Google’s relationship with your privacy to take a little of the sting out of the anti-Facebook stories which regularly appear in the press.
Looking on from the side, you kind of wish they’d all just concentrate on doing their own thing better, rather than spending time and money trying to harass each other out of the market.
SIDENOTE: We’ve just had a big stand-up row in the office about whether Facebook is a competitor of Google. Anthony and Whitehouse say not, arguing that the two things are very very different business models. While clearly they are in that limited sense, my point is that they are competing for the same advertising revenues. If either platform proves to be a more effective medium for reaching consumers, then money will flow in that direction.
Like TV and radio, search and social will undoubtedly continue to co-exist, but the unwritten law of competition is thus: beggar thy neighbour. As the economy continues its uncertain path, advertisers want the most bang for their buck. If Facebook’s model of highly-personalised interactions based on an astoundingly detailed consumer profile can be show to be as or more effective than Google’s search-based interaction, then that is a threat to Google. No two ways about it. The same is also true of Murdoch’s pay-per-view content model and Apple’s App market.
While not a zero-sum game, advertising is a market with winners and losers, like any other.