Facebook vs. Google: Can Both Sit at the Top?

In a long and thoughtful piece in Fortune, Miguel Helft and Jessi Hempel try to puzzle out whether the future of the Web will belong to Facebook or Google, the two superpowers battling hardest for our hearts, minds and clicks. What’s interesting, they say, is the basic differences in the worldviews — or webviews —the companies have.

In (Google CEO Larry) Page’s web, everything starts with a search. You search for news or for a pair of shoes or to keep up with your favorite celebrity. If you want to learn about a medical condition or decide which television to buy, you search. In that world, Google’s algorithms, honed over more than a decade, respond almost perfectly. But in recent years the web has tilted gradually, and perhaps inexorably, toward (Facebook CEO Mark) Zuckerberg’s world. There, rather than search for a news article, you wait for your friends to tell you what to read. They tell you what movies they enjoyed, what brands they like, and where to eat sushi.

If  the battle is ultimately all about online advertising dollars, Google is winning right now with a 41 percent share of the $31 billion U.S. market. But Facebook’s ad revenue is growing 81 percent this year compared to Google’s 34 percent. So while it may still be a smaller company, Facebook is looming larger in Google’s eyes.

Google’s reaction has been to launch Google+ as a direct competitor to Facebook. With 40 million accounts, it’s successful, though Facebook has 20 times as many users who are deeply engaged. Zuckerberg’s challenge is to fend off Google+ long enough to get his IPO done sometime next year, an event that may value the company at $80 billion, still less than half of Google’s size, but the only credible threat in site. (Yahoo, by contrast, is an $18 billion company.)

For now, Helft and Hempel say the battle continues, with Facebook inventing all sorts of apps, gimmicks and widgets to keep its users close at hand no matter where they go on the Web. Is there room for both companies at the top? Probably, but the battle will be more pronounced in 2012.

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