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Facebook’s new features are positioning it to organize the Web. Can it best Google?

Can Facebook out-Google Google? The competition is mounting between the Web’s two largest destinations as Facebook unleashes a string of new features. Set to debut at Facebook’s April 21 developers conference, they may lay the groundwork for reorganizing the Internet according to the relationships between people instead of pages—with massive implications for both search and advertising.

Back when the Web was simply pages we clicked through on our laptops, Google (GOOG) was king of search, serving up the most relevant and popular Web destinations. It still does the best job of any single search engine at turning up what we want, and it’s constantly refining its algorithms to give us the most relevant results based on our past searches. So when a colleague and I both plugged “Heidi Klum” into our Google search boxes recently, my first three results were text links to articles while he received photographs of the supermodel. We showed these screens to Google Chief Economist Hal Varian during an interview last week, and he gave an approving nod: It was a successful result of the company’s massive endeavor to personalize and improve searches.

But as the Web becomes more dynamic, Google falls short.

Thanks to microblogging services and social networks, anyone can publish online and mine the results in real time, creating a massive amount of data that often exists inside a social network and is difficult to index and nearly impossible to deliver results on in real time. Also, the Web can now be found on any device that has a browser—Blackberries, iPads, and laptops are just the beginning. And we depend on the web to turn up higher volumes of increasingly more relevant information. It’s become increasingly clear that we need better ways to organize that information. When I search for Heidi Klum, I also wanted to know what my friends have to say about her, what articles they’ve read about her, and whether she happens to be, say, speaking right this second at a bookstore two blocks down from me.

Facebook’s Mission to Extend Social Networking

With its newest round of features, Facebook lays the groundwork to meet this desire by reaching far beyond the social network itself. With the rumored “like” button that founder Mark Zuckerberg will announce in his keynote, users will be able to “like” Websites and Facebook will collect that data, creating an expanding map of the preferences people express across the the entire Internet.

Facebook is also reported to be preparing a tool bar that Web publishers can affix to the bottom of a page, allowing users to do their social networking without leaving, say, the New York Times (NYT) Website.  And blogs report Facebook may be experimenting with developer tools that will allow any page on the Web to have the features of a Facebook page.

As it launches more features outside the Facebook site, the company’s strategy is starting to look remarkably similar to Google’s early strategy. As the Times points out, the search engine began as a destination for searchers. To grow, it first syndicated its search box to other websites, and later, its advertising platform.

Is Google Keeping Up?

Meanwhile most of Google’s efforts at harnessing the new types of information passed around within social networks have fallen flat.

The company has inked a deal to show Twitter results in its search stream, but it’s not yet clear how they improve Google’s traditional search experience. And Google’s February launch of Buzz as a feature that let Gmailers share updates and content was met with outcries from users irked at having their address books suddenly made public in the form of friend lists that their followers could view. The strategy Google employs is remarkably different, both from its early days, and from where Facebook is today. Rather than bringing their software to the places users already are, Google is trying to build new sandboxes for users to come into. So far, they don’t seem interested in bringing their toys to play. Facebook, meanwhile is trying to make all of the Internet into its sandbox, by offering more and better integration with the tools and websites users already like.

Yet for all of Facebook’s sharing capabilities, it has yet to conquer one of the most social territories on the Web—and one of the places where users spend the most time: the inbox. The site’s messaging system is clunky and hard to organize. Google still holds users’ attention with Gmail, the best free email system available, and despite the poor reception Buzz received, the company was smart to think about how it could turn its email platform into a social networking platform—or find a better way to harness the social aspects of the Web and organize it into an improved search product, before it’s too late.