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Can Facebook Ever Truly Challenge Alphabet or Twitter?

By Andrew Tonner – Mar 13, 2016 at 2:05PM

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Facebook’s ongoing interest in search threatens tech companies from Alphabet to Twitter, but just how likely is the social media giant to kill the competition?

Image source: Facebook.

Social media giant Facebook (META 23.90%) wants to own your digital online life, and its increased combativeness, spanning a whole host of digital products, should loom large among online rivals ranging from Alphabet (GOOG 6.58%) (GOOGL 6.74%) and Twitter (TWTR) to

Thanks to its swelling user base and soaring profits, the sixth-largest U.S. publicly traded company has in the last half-year gradually waded deeper into ancillary areas of tech like e-commerce, on-demand services, and arguably its largest opportunity -- search. However, though the company clearly views search as a critical component for its future growth, just how realistic are Facebook's ambitions in this all-important technology category?

A brief history of Facebook search
To varying degrees, Facebook has always featured a search component, dating back to the primitive search tool co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg designed into the nascent product that allowed college students to locate and interact with their friends.

Years later, in 2010, Facebook struck a deal with Microsoft to allow Bing web search results to also appear in queries entered into the search bar, an initiative that ultimately proved unsuccessful. Three years later, in 2013, Facebook publicly launched its internally developed Graph Search technology, which tried to combine Facebook's reams of personal user data with outside web search results to create the company's most usable search function to date. Last October, Facebook introduced a wider-reaching search tool that also coincided with privacy changes that made it possible for users to search through any publicly available post.

Speaking to the legitimate progress the company has made in indexing its vast troves of user-generated data, the social media platform today processes roughly 1.5 billion search queries daily, with each individual search sifting through over 1,000 algorithmic filters in order to produce maximally relevant results. To be sure, Facebook's progress in search deserves praise for its continuous improvements. However, amid more than a decade's worth of effort, Facebook's clear ambition to disrupt real-time information sources like Alphabet's Google or Twitter remains far from given.

Image source: Twitter.

Alphabet or Twitter beware?
Hopefully, it goes without saying that Facebook's increased emphasis on search will drive ripple effects throughout the rest of the tech world, especially for information-centric services like Alphabet's Google or Twitter. However, even if Facebook improves its search capabilities to provide more relevant web info, social content, or real-time discussion, that still might not be enough to replace either Twitter or Alphabet.

One of the truly interesting aspects of analyzing Facebook's strategy is that it involves both technology and user demand elements, and failing in either area will likely scupper Facebook's attempts to hit Alphabet or Twitter where it hurts. From a technology feasibility standpoint, Facebook has made impressive strides in consistently improving its search offerings from a technical perspective, but it still remains far behind services like Alphabet's Google in generating usable web information. Can Facebook potentially close this crucial gap?

As one of the most aspirational places to work in tech, Facebook can usually recruit the best talent in the industry, which bolsters the notion that the company should be able to continue to attract the engineering talent required to improve its search feature's performance. This is, of course, a gross oversimplification of the technical hurdles that matching, or even besting, Alphabet's Google search engine will involve. However, use case issues also loom large as part of Facebook's push to disrupt Alphabet or Twitter.

Turning to the user interest side of the problem, the question becomes not whether Facebook can create a desirable search product, but do its users even want to use the social media platform to find non-social information or view real-time discussions?

Here, the evidence might point toward search or real-time news operating better as stand-alone entities, rather than as layers atop Facebook's core platform. The primary driver of this argument is Facebook's uber popular Messenger platform, which Facebook unbundled it into its own independent application in April 2014. The service, along with Facebook's other messaging subsidiary WhatsApp, stands as one of the most popular communication tools on the planet.

To be sure, Facebook's decision to untether Messenger reflects its long-term monetization strategy for the platform, which we're only beginning to see take shape today. However, from a high-level perspective, Facebook's past product behavior points to a philosophy that emphasizes simplicity and usability, and as such, adding feature-intensive tools like search or real-time news and analysis seems to run counter to this demonstrated pattern of behavior.

So, while Facebook clearly believes that delving deeper into search could allow it to steal business from rivals like Alphabet or Twitter, the actual mechanics of doing so also bring to light a number of potential problems.

Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Andrew Tonner has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A and C shares),, Facebook, and Twitter. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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