Facebook friend relationships and Likes will shortly begin appearing in Microsoft’s Bing search engine, the companies announced today. In addition to the 1,000 other factors that Microsoft says it uses to determine results, there will now be items on the results Page showing friends and Liked Pages that are related to search queries.
These social additions could improve the value of Bing to users, helping them find information about people or other things — restaurants, clothes and other goods — based on existing Facebook data. See our coverage from earlier today for more details on the product.
The bigger story, that many are observing, is that Microsoft and Facebook are collaborating to compete with Google on its home turf. While that is clearly the case today, the situation for these companies is more complex.
Microsoft invested $240 million in Facebook back in 2007 at a $15 billion preferred stock valuation, and it got a strategic partnership as part of the deal. While the valuation was widely questioned at the time, Facebook’s valuation has now potentially more than doubled (according to limited sell-side data from some secondary markets), and Microsoft is in position to work out product relationships like the Bing one today. It has already been pushing out Facebook-related updates, actually, such as when it began surfacing Facebook public status updates in June.
On the other hand, Google has had limited access to Facebook data, most notably introducing public Page information to results back in February. Although user names, photos, friend relationships and Likes are all public information, Facebook controls how third-parties, including search engines, collect it for their own purposes. It blocks most third parties from scraping the site (at least as best it can) while it works out deals with partners like Microsoft. So Google has relied on its own social data, as well as more from Twitter and other partners, to help personalize search results.
If the additions today — or any future ones — significantly improve search, then Google will feel even more pressure to try to collect its own social data, or cut a deal to get Facebook’s.
Not Just About Search
But what are Facebook’s long-term plans for its data and search engines? As chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said today at the launch event, “We’re trying to build a platform, so fundamentally, this is not about working with a single company. Over the long term, we would love to work with everyone.”
To rephrase that line, whatever Facebook’s relationship with Microsoft, and whatever interest it has in disrupting Google, what it really wants to do is make itself an indispensable social layer on top of everything else. Doing so essentially makes companies like Microsoft and Google developers on its platform, meaning one day they could need Facebook and its data more than Facebook needs them.
And, search may be the main way that users spent the past decade navigating the web, but Facebook intends for social software — whether through a search engine, the news feed on its own site, or anywhere else — to win in the future.
So making Bing more social just ups the pressure more on Google to figure out social data on its own, whether its own entertainment-driven social destination or social features that improve its other products. Google needs high-quality data on its own, not just to help it personalize search, but to help it displace Facebook’s importance to users and to other developers.
Google’s real fear of Facebook is not that it helps a competitor deliver somewhat better search results, but that Facebook itself displaces Google as the average user’s home page. Once Facebook or Facebook-connected applications are where people engage with the web, Google itself becomes less necessary.