Is Facebook News really a threat to Google News / Twitter?
by Jonathon Oake
Exciting week for the ‘Facebook vs. Google’ narrative … firstly, there was some data suggesting that Facebook had supplanted Google News as the world’s biggest news reader(!), coupled with a FB blog post suggesting users turn their news feed into a virtual RSS reader. Then a couple of days later Google launched a social feed app called Buzz to its Gmail users, which, if users were to adopt it, would in an instant make Buzz the world’s 2nd biggest social network behind FB.
The media responded to Facebook’s move move by asking if the social networking site was Google’s biggest threat. First thing’s first: even if FB drove more news traffic than Google News, by far the biggest source of traffic for news channels is still organic search, and Google owns that category. And let’s also not forget that the 2nd biggest search engine in the world is Youtube, meaning that FB is not, and almost certainly never will be, a serious rival for Google in this area.
But Facebook has a lot of things going for it as a content discovery tool: a phenomenal number of users, data on those users, web-wide integration through FB Connect and FB Share, huge session times and return sessions, and an interface that’s rapidly becoming the new portal for everyone under the age of 40. The best thing though is the possibility of live, socially-mediated link-sharing and content discovery that has driven much of Twitter’s success. Facebook’s assets as a content discovery tool is borne out in their figures, which show that users share an amazing 5 billion pieces of content a week.
But I don’t think Facebook will dominate this space, and it all comes down to consumer expectations. What the tech media has done with this is conflated two very different things into one narrative: the first is the huge growth of content sharing on FB, and the 2nd is FB’s ambition to be the killer web app for said content sharing.
What’s plain to see is that virtually all those 400m people using Facebook regard it as a social platform – something to help them keep in touch with their friends – rather than a news platform. If people read the odd news item as part of interacting with their friends, that’s incidental to their real purpose on the site. This is a key differentiator with Twitter, not to mention Google News, since people using those services tend to be purposely seeking links to content.
On a Guardian story, entitled simply ‘Facebook is the new threat to Google’, there were a lot of comments from average punters posters saying, in effect, ‘huh?’. See one example below:
In essence, the flavour of comments was ‘I use Google for finding stuff and Facebook for keeping in touch with my friends … what’s the problem?’. And this is the nub of the issue: I suspect that regardless of the numbers of people who happen to share and discover a Wall St Journal piece on Facebook, hardly anyone signs in to FB specifically to see what’s in the WSJ.
And that’s a big thing. Facebook’s content sharing could grow tenfold, but unless users regard it as a specialised content destination, it’ll always be in a weak position relative to services that are positioned as such. Maybe not Google News or Twitter, but something. You can see the gulf here when you look at the type of content being shared across both sites. Google News’ most popular UK story at the moment is a Guardian piece about terror suspect Binyam Mohamed; hard to find data from FB, but the top content shared on social networks last year were mostly viral videos, like Jill and Kevin’s wedding dance. The type of stuff, in other words, you might talk about with your social sphere, but clearly different from news consumption. Facebook can build in all the functionality they like, but there’s going to need to be a big shift in consumer’s perceptions of what the site is for before it could dominate the news space.
I think the bulk of Facebook’s growth in content sharing is mostly due to the fact that everything to do with Facebook is growing, rather than a seismic shift in news consumption. I’d like to see how the patterns in news content sharing compares relative to growth in other content (like viral videos), status updates, session times, users, and other key metrics. I’ll bet it’s all growing, and probably by a similar rate.
In fairness, Facebook does represent a threat to Google, but it’s a generic threat that comes from the fact that it’s so huge. Its size and relationship with users means it represents a nominal threat to pretty much any internet business: match.com, eBay, Expedia, Twitter, Hotmail, Flickr, Lovefilm or Digg. It just depends where it wants to focus, if it feels it needs to, and if it can take users with it on the journey.