Twitter, Facebook and Google: the competition under convergence

Last Wednesday I attended the first Twitter developer conference (Chirp), at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. While Chirp is very much being shadowed by today’s Facebook f8 conference (both companies seem to see each other as major competitors), it was still a coming-out party of sorts, a declaration that Twitter is now big enough to host a conference with 1,000 developers.

My biggest takeaway from Chirp was how ambitious the Twitter team is. For a company that has long been under critics’ fire for not having a business model, the core of its strategy remains surprisingly attached to “getting the product right” first. The company’s priorities, according to CEO Ev Williams, is “0. Infrastructure; 1. Friction-free; 2. Relevance; 3. Revenue.” Revenue was decidedly last on the list.

Infrastructure is easy to understand – Twitter has been hurt by scaling pains so many times that it makes sense that the company is focused on coping with the growth first and foremost. Friction-free is about making the service easier to use, especially in the context of retaining new users, which was Ev’s rationale for the Tweetie acquisition. Friction-free is also the thinking behind the @anywhere initiative – so that users can use Twitter anywhere on the web, and not be interrupted by having to open another web-page etc. Relevance is partly about search, and partly about new features such as location and annotations.

And this is where things start to get interesting. For a long time, Twitter itself did not have an inbuilt search function; a number of 3rd party developers offered competing Twitter search products. The leader of these products, Summize, was eventually acquired by Twitter; but as Ev described it at Chirp, it was more like a merge of equals (size of team etc.). While the Twitter team didn’t talk a lot about search, I felt the key to the service’s relevance, and future business model, would be search – how do you organize this world of information (to paraphrase Google’s mission) stored in the billions of tweets, so that value can be extracted?

This is by no means an easy task. The distinctiveness about Twitter is its timeliness – you can literally find out what’s going in the world right now. However, this also makes search, or any other type of data organization, technically complex. Annotations and other types of meta-data helps reduce the complexity, as well as efforts to understand the users’ intent – are you looking for info on a specific location or event – but it will still be a daunting problem. (Google and Bing has had access to Twitter’s data-stream for a while now, but whether it’s for lack of trying or the complexity of the issue, their current use of Twitter data in their search results seem largely inconsequential.)

Still, if the Twitter team can crack this nut, then they may have on their hands a truly blockbuster product. The beauty of Twitter is how many different usages people have come up with for it – as a communications tool, it is simply an enabler of numerous services. If they can make their information much more organized through search, then the value of the communication tool is enhanced, as well as the services built on top of it. The recent story of how Twitter can be used to predict box office success is just one example of the potential value.

(This post was written over several days so the thought-flow is somewhat broken.)

When I was interviewing for my summer internship, I got asked the question “if you had funding to build a new search engine, what would you do?” My response was you can either tackle the existing search problem through a drastically different algorithm, or focus on specific verticals (e.g. travel) or new markets (mobile, location). If we change the phrase “search engine” to “method of organizing information”, then certainly both Twitter and Facebook are taking on a differentiated approach from Google. While the three companies may at face value be in very discrete markets, they are on a unavoidable collision course in terms of competition. While Google is all about indexing the static web, Facebook and Twitter are built on the social web, and they may well grow to become the Google killer that many have been searching for.

This is not as far-stretched as you may think. Think about the last time you performed a search. Did you ask any friends first? Was it only when they said “I don’t know” that you replied, “don’t worry about it. I’ll just Google it.”? Google search is powerful and hugely useful, but only to the extent of how useful the static pages it indexes are. When you do a search on a specific question, you often have to tinker it a few times. Click on a few different search results. Read through them. Often the pages won’t have the answer to the exact question you have, but enough info to give you pieces of the puzzle so you can piece it together. This is still much, much more efficient compared to doing research at the library, but the power of the social web is that you are not confined to static pages and information – the odds are that there is some person out there who knows exactly the answer to your question, and the power of the social web is that it enables you to ask that person directly. Quite a few of the people I follow on Twitter use it as a magical search engine – you pose a question on Twitter and your followers answer it.

Of course, this is just one specific scenario where social web services such as Twitter and Facebook have the upper hand against Google (and for the many, many instances where you need static information Google is still the better option – e.g. what is the year that the US was founded); but it does highlight Google’s key vulnerability – its lack of presence in social. Be it Orkut, Wave or Buzz, Google has repeatedly shown its inability to come up with a competitive social networking product. Maybe Google simply doesn’t have the social genes in its DNA – which is fine, as for the foreseeable future they will still make a killing in Adwords/Adsense. But the danger for Google is that search gets demoted from a primary instinct into a secondary instinct, the same way that Kayak / Mobissimo / Bing Travel and other vertical search engines have made Google irrelevant in travel search. It will still be a huge market, but only a less efficient/user-friendly alternative. And it’s clear from Facebook this week and Twitter last week that these companies have huge ambitions too in organizing the world’s information – hence the competition will be inevitable.

One last note – while Facebook has seemed to garner much more attention and praise with its announcements, Twitter’s efforts, especially in mobile shouldn’t be disregarded. The news today that Twitter has acquired SMS service Cloudhopper may sound insignificant to those of us who are used to iPhone apps and 3G networks, but in the grand scheme of things SMS is still such a viable and active method of information delivery. It will be interesting to see how Twitter uses SMS to its advantage.