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From humble beginnings, both Facebook and Google have become online Titans. But how have the top two websites in the world become so powerful?
Once upon a time Google was just a pet project in Stanford University. Two PhD students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, developed BackRub, a search engine that utilised a link-based system (PageRank) to order search results. The Google domain was registered in 1997, the company was officially created a year later and the rest, as they say, is history.
Six years later, Mark Zuckerberg began developing a small social networking site called thefacebook, for students at Harvard University. Within a year it was opened up to further Ivy League colleges, then universities, schools and some major businesses nationwide. Finally, in 2006, Facebook rolled out globally.
The abiding similarity in both companies is that despite their different focuses, both sites had one core function. Google was created as a search engine, Facebook as a social networking site.
New Ideas in a Developing Marketplace
Neither was entirely unique though. Social networks had been around for some time before Zuckerberg started his college dorm project. Sites like Friends Reunited and Friendster were already well established and proving hugely popular at the time. However, Facebook offered something different; it also targeted a different audience, students.
By the time Google was conceptualised, search engines like Lycos (launched 1994), AltaVista and Yahoo (both 1995) were operational. With more people heading online and looking for ways to find information easily, these search engines were able to deliver keyword-based results. Google though was to offer something new.
PageRank redefined how websites were indexed. Based around link authority, as well as other ranking factors like keywords, Google were able to provide more focussed results. From this point, all competitors, including those established some time before, were playing catch-up.
Huge Growth and Brand Recognition
Both services snowballed. As word spread, people flocked to see what the fuss was about and most stayed. Google slipped seamlessly into the public lexicon, being used as a generic term for search. Facebook, spurred on by the interest generated across the campuses of America, expanded to engulf the world. As more people joined, more friends were invited, starting a chain reaction that would eventually secure them 400 million members.
But, unlike other sites who achieved early success, both Facebook and Google capitalised on their popularity and focussed on developing their product. This meant diversifying.
Over the years, the Google list of services has expanded beyond all recognition [see: Google’s Most Useful Tools, Applications and Features]. They have become one of the foremost developers of free online tools and have used their search market dominance and related paid search income to fund ventures into new fields. Their ambition to index and categorise all content, including offline materials like books, has often courted controversy.
Facebook too has grown. Whilst the core site remains dedicated to social networking, the diversity of tools has made it easier for people to find one another and share pictures, videos and games. They have effectively engineered a social hub; a site that has a huge, constantly interacting membership with the facility to accommodate all of their requirements.
How Did They Become So Successful?
Today, Google and Facebook are the two leading online brands. Their sites are the most visited, the most used and, arguably, the most recognisable. However, as previously mentioned, neither was an entirely new concept and both had successful predecessors; so how did they become so dominant?
There are three fundamental reasons why Google and Facebook are so successful:
1. Global saturation and positive reinforcement of the brand
2. Continued development of the product
3. Improved stickiness of the site
The third of these is something that both have spent considerable time developing.
Google Adopts Stickier Features
Let’s look at Google. It starts as a search engine. That’s fine; people come and make a search, then leave to visit the recommended sites. This might be the core function, but it isn’t going to have people spending hours using your service.
Therefore, Google have integrated more social aspects, including mail. This way, people might visit to either check their mail or search, often doing both. Over time their user services have increased and developed. iGoogle, for example, provides a user-defined homepage. When logged in, Googlers can adapt iGoogle to include news updates, social networking tickers and all manner of other information titbits. Again, this is designed to make them come back and keep coming back [see: Is Google Becoming Stickier].
Then there are the latest forays into the social web, with both Wave and Buzz [see: Google Buzz into Social Media Market]. By giving users the opportunity to use their profile information to build networks and join conversations, all the while using Google as the platform, the humble search engine has outgrown its core focus.
Continued Innovation to Appease Users and Encourage Growth
Facebook is also in a highly competitive market. Sites like Twitter and MySpace are on hand to make sure standards don’t slip. However, whilst not as diversified as Google, Facebook has not been shy of innovating to captivate. Interactive games, commenting, poking, messaging and sharing have allowed people to live an entirely Internet-based social life.
Primary competitors have also found themselves a niche. For example Twitter doesn’t come with all the bells and whistles that Facebook has, instead it employs simple 140 character messages. This allows for real-time conversations, link sharing and little else – perfect for anybody looking to avoid over exposure. MySpace is now a very music-orientated site. Whilst everyday users are still in high numbers, musicians often use it to share tracks, tour information and interact with their community. Facebook covers pretty much everything else.
By diversifying the services that they can offer their users, Google and Facebook have cracked the Internet. People keep wanting to come back. Even to the extent where they will rarely visit other sites.
One Site for All Purposes
We don’t simply browse the Internet like we did in the old days. Information is abundant and it is easy to access. Going online is about getting the information we want and moving on. These two Internet giants have latched onto this shorter attention span and capitalised. Information is retrievable within seconds. It is ordered in terms of relevance and chronology. It is even on our homepages, saving us any effort whatsoever.
Now the focus might very well be on which one can shrink the Internet further. The more they incorporate, the more users they receive and the more data they have, the stronger Facebook and Google will become. Stickiness is the ultimate ambition…well, that and a fair income.
As Google integrates Facebook qualities (Buzz, Social Search, Wave even), Facebook too is starting to develop a search presence. Where all this leads to nobody yet knows. Can anyone overtake them? Again, a complete mystery.
They have an ever-expanding army of regular users, they have the brand presence and both have adapted well to new media environments (mobile Internet particularly). They also have a huge amount of power and the influence that comes with it. This has enabled both to tighten their stranglehold on the Internet and those who use it.
So until the next big idea comes along – bona fide semantic search most likely [see: Is Google Personalised Search Moving Us Towards Web 3.0?], Facebook and Google are unlikely to be going anywhere. Yes, both have had their issues [see: Google’s Acrimonious China Exit Highlights Search Engines’ Role in State Censorship | Should Internet Content Hosts Be More Accountable?], but always appear to come out the other side stronger. A sign, if ever there was one, of just how strong their respective global brands are.
What are your views on Google and Facebook? Is their domination healthy, or is it damaging the Internet and privacy of the individual? What will it take for somebody to come along and topple them from the top?
Samantha Noble is well known within in the search industry, she even won the UK Search Personality 2016 at the UK Search Awards in November. This year, she continues to make an impact on the industry by judging not only one, but three, prestigious industry awards.