Paul Adams is one of Silicon Valley's most wanted. He's an intellectually minded product designer with square-framed glasses, a thick Irish accent, and a cult following of passionate techies. As one of Google's lead social researchers, he helped dream up the big idea behind the company's new social network, Google+: those flexible circles that let you group friends easily under monikers like "real friends" or "college buddies." He never got to help bring his concept to consumers, though. In a master talent grab last December, Facebook lured him 10 miles east to Palo Alto to help design social advertisements. On his blog, Adams explained, "Google values technology, not social science."
In the long history of tech rivalries, rarely has there been a battle as competitive as the raging war between the web's wonder twins. They will stop at nothing to win over whip-smart folks like Adams, amass eyeballs, and land ad dollars. There's no public trash talking à la the Oracle (ORCL, Fortune 500) vs. HP (HPQ, Fortune 500) smackdown, nor are the battle lines drawn as clearly as they were when Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) took on Netscape, but the stakes are immense. These companies are fighting to see which of them will determine the future of the web -- and the outcome will affect the way we get information, communicate, and buy and sell.
Facebook and Google: Head-to-Head
In one corner is Facebook, the reigning champion of the social web, trying to cement its position as the owner of everyone's online identity. In the other is Google (GOOG, Fortune 500), the company that organized the world's information and showed us how to find it, fighting to remain relevant as the Internet of hyperlinks gives way to an Internet of people.
Although Larry Page, Google's co-founder and its CEO since April, was born just 11 years before Mark Zuckerberg, his counterpart at Facebook, the two belong to different Internet generations with different worldviews. In 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 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.
Facebook is squarely at the center of this new universe, and much of what people do online these days starts there. But Facebook's masterstroke has been to spread itself across the web and allow others to tap your network of friends. As a result, thousands of websites and apps have essentially become satellites that orbit around Facebook. You can now go to Yelp to find out what your Facebook friends say about the new coffeehouse down the street, visit Spotify to let them pick music playlists for you, or play Zynga games with them. To make matters worse for Page, much of this social activity can't be seen by Google's web-trolling algorithms, so every day they (and by extension, Google) become a little bit less accurate and relevant.