How will Facebook respond to the growth of Pinterest? A look at the social network’s history with competition

A report from marketing services company Experian says Pinterest is the third most popular social network in the U.S. after Facebook and Twitter.

In past years when a social platform started to get traction as Pinterest has, Facebook responded by launching features inspired by its would-be competitors. There was the switch to a real-time feed in response to Twitter and the addition of check-ins when Foursquare was hot. But with Pinterest, things might be different.

Pinterest’s status as an Open Graph partner potentially prevents Facebook from feeling a need to copy the app since it is essentially part of the platform already. The social network might also be clearer about its own direction at this stage, learning lessons from past knee-jerk reactions that ultimately didn’t take off on the site. Finally, Pinterest’s core functionality is one that already exists on Facebook: sharing links and images. We might see the social network take some design cues from the pinboard site, but it seems unlikely that Facebook would make any major overhauls or new products in response to Pinterest.

Open Graph as protection?

As an Open Graph partner, Pinterest’s site and mobile app integrate Facebook in a way that publishes activity to Timeline, Ticker and News Feed. The pinboard site is growing at the rate it is — 17.8 million unique U.S. visitors in February spending an average of 89 minutes per month on site — in part because of Facebook. Pinterest activity is featured prominently in News Feed and a number of celebrities, including Katie Couric and Vanessa Hudgens, share their pins with Facebook subscribers. Pinterest gets traffic and new users; Facebook gets data that it can use to improve its algorithms and ad targeting. For example, Ads API partners can target users by what they’ve pinned or pinners and boards they follow. This option isn’t available to self-serve advertisers yet, but is likely part of the future of Facebook’s ad platform.

When networks like Twitter and Foursquare started to become popular, they were seen as more of potential a threat to Facebook because they were collecting data about connections between people and interests that Facebook couldn’t access. Now Foursquare, along with Tumblr, Path, Instagram and other alternative social networks, have integrated Open Graph and essentially become a part of Facebook. (We’ve wondered whether Twitter would ever do the same.)

Lessons learned?

Most of the projects Facebook built as a reaction to another growing service did not last very long. In March 2009, the social network changed its algorithm-sorted News Feed to a real-time stream à la Twitter. By October that year, it added a “top stories” view to allow users to switch between real-time and a more curated feed. In 2010, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted to us that he felt he “paid too much attention” to Twitter.

Then there was the rise of location-based services with Foursquare and Gowalla attracting a lot of press. Facebook announced “Places” in August 2010, giving users the ability to check into places from their mobile phones. From the start, Facebook took a platform approach to location, partnering with other check-in services for the launch, but eventually the company realized the check-in mechanism was only part of the equation. It decided to phase out Places in favor of location tagging for any photo, status update, event or Open Graph action. The company also recently acquired location-based service Gowalla.

That same summer in 2010, Facebook debuted Questions, a Quora-like application to ask and answer questions publicly. The feature never made it out of beta. Instead, the project pivoted and Facebook released Questions as more of a polling mechanism in 2011. From what we can tell, Questions hasn’t ever taken off among users, though many page owners use the feature to engage fans. Facebook hasn’t improved the product much since launch. In fact, it took nearly a year for Questions to ever appear in the mobile feed, and users still can’t add new questions from mobile devices.

Facebook was also temporarily distracted by Groupon and Instagram. The social network’s pre-paid deals service was discontinued after about five months. A rumored photo sharing app that appeared to support filters — based on leaked images in June 2011 — was never released.

[Update 4/9/12 – Facebook has acquired Instagram for $1 billion. The company says the mobile photo sharing app will continue under the Instagram name.]

The social network did have success with its group messaging strategy. In early 2011, mobile apps like Beluga, GroupMe and Fast Society were taking off. Facebook bought Beluga and had the team convert the app into the standalone Facebook Messenger app. The app has been one of the Top 100 free iPhone apps since it launched in August 2011, and remains popular on Android as well.

What might Facebook do?

There’s clearly something to the Pinterest phenomenon, and Facebook seems to have its eyes on the pinboard site. Zuckerberg created an account a few months ago and he even Liked a site called Friendsheet that makes users’ Facebook News Feeds appear like Pinterest boards.

Facebook might not feel the need to recreate Pinterest on its own site, but the social network could take inspiration for smaller features through design or the way it simplifies sharing. Facebook, like Pinterest, has long offered plug-ins to make it easy to share links on the site. But unlike Facebook’s share button, Pinterest’s “pin it” button focuses on image thumbnails. Pinterest users can see all their thumbnail options at once, whereas Facebook users have to cycle through images one by one (see images below for comparison). We might see Facebook change this and we might also see the social network increase the size of link thumbnails in News Feed.

We probably won’t see Facebook buy Pinterest. The product does not incorporate any unique technology the social network needs and the company is already valued incredibly high. Pinterest was most recently valued at $200 million, but some investors have suggested it could be worth $1 billion. Even if Facebook was interested in the company, it would be unlikely to sell at this point. Pinterest can continue to grow and develop a business model, all while functioning on top of Facebook’s mutually beneficial Open Graph.