Four things Google needs to do to beat Facebook on the social web

June 24, 2011, 2:56 PM UTC

By Ben Elowitz, contributor Google is confronting a series of rugged (and, perhaps, ultimately insurmountable) challenges. And make no mistake: these challenges loom large, because Google’s dominance of the Internet landscape is increasingly being threatened by Facebook’s rise. If Google (GOOG) is going to maintain its leadership, still-new CEO Larry Page needs to have a plan for the social Web. And, as the new CEO, he’ll need investors to be confident that he’s got this handled. There are four things Page could do to renew Google’s dominance: 1. Admit that Google has a problem. Page needs to acknowledge to his employees the enormous threat posed by the socialization of the Web: already, 25 percent of all page views on the Internet are not only social, but served by Google’s enemy, Facebook; meanwhile, Google has no significant share whatsoever in any social activity. Google’s CEO should also be declaring to his employees that Google’s next life stage must be fully social. In addition, Page must offer analysts a more substantive and authentic message. 

When Google’s senior executive team sweeps its social Web weakness under the rug, Wall Street isn’t fooled. And Page’s silence doesn’t stop the tough conversation from happening. Indeed, in this age of investor sophistication and watchfulness, admitting neither problems nor opportunities only heightens the fact that the CEO isn’t taking his business seriously. Page could have preempted the hard-edged conversation with his analysts recently by proving that Google is ready to fully participate in the opportunity presented by the social Web. If framed well, and backed by demonstrative action, this could even help to highlight the potential upside in Google’s future, and that’s always a positive when it comes to dealing with the Street. 2. Show Google understands how the Web is changing. Facebook isn’t just another really popular Web site. Rather, the entire nature of the Web has been transformed from a bunch of pages on servers that Google crawls, to the world’s people connected to each other and sharing their lives. Just as significant, more and more of the Internet’s capabilities are delivered via apps, rather than on HTML forms. 

Gone are the days when Web developers would make everything HTML-compliant just for Google’s sake, while end-users had forgivingly low bars for their own experiences. Now, customers must come first to publishers – and that means providing them with content when, where, and how they want it in the social networks, in video, and on mobile devices. Page needs to clearly show that he understands the “ground rules” of the new Web; then he needs to lay them out crisply, with their differences distinctly noted, so that his business units – from the moneymakers of search and advertising to the experiments in social media – can start remaking themselves accordingly. Gmail, for example, should be reinventing communication for a fully connected world in which email usage is on the decline, just as it reinvented the category when email was still on the rise seven years ago; and Google Apps needs to rethink how applications can be so much more than mere Microsoft Office stand-ins when its users are connected to the Web most of the time. 3. Recruit hard for new talent. It’s not enough to rotate the deck chairs and the bodies that sit in them; it’s time for Google to parachute in some rescuers. For example, Google needs to win notables like Vadim Lavrusik, who just joined Facebook, to help guide social content in news and media; and it also needs to remake its employment proposition to attract the up-and-coming stars like those who have joined Facebook, as well as those who have started their own companies. Google developed an amazing human resources formula that attracted a slew of talent to fuel the search wave; but now the talent wars are underway, and Facebook’s pre-IPO buzz has leapfrogged over Google’s gourmet chef and personal training perks to attract the best and the brightest. Google needs to reinvent its formula and demonstrate a winning strategy to attract the next generation of stars. 4. Show your work on social. Finally, Page should be demonstrating progress on a host of new, socially supercharged products and ideas that Google desperately needs right now. In addition to pulling from the outside, the company should be incubating its own ideas to take advantage of the social Web. Page’s incentive compensation plan is a start, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough to light a fire that will help Google out-compete Facebook, a private company that has already garnered nearly 50 percent of Google’s own market capitalization – without having even signaled an entry into the search marketplace yet. Google’s home turf of search is uncharted territory for Facebook, but, just as importantly, the social terrain has already proven a minefield for Google. Page should be working on these four items each and every day. But he should also be communicating his progress in these areas on an ongoing basis to investors and analysts, as well as employees. And, as for how, the outreach needs to be personal. 

He’s Google’s CEO; it’s his responsibility; and it’s an integral part of the top job – a job, by the way, that he recently chose to assume and shoulder. In his debut earnings call with investors, Page made nary a mention of social. By sweeping the social Web and his new chief competitor under the rug, Page seemed to be making the false assumption that the analysts and media covering the company wouldn’t notice the rising force of social or Google’s lack of social progress. 

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, because Facebook’s $78 billion valuation represents a lump beneath the rug that’s nearly the size of Mt. Rainier. Google can’t just ignore this mountainous marketplace impediment. And investors aren’t the only ones that take notice of Google’s lack of strategy here: the engineers coding Google’s products need to know that their leaders want to attack, not ignore, the mountain. Markets go up, and markets go down. But opportunities like the social Web come along only so often. So, if Page and Google remain radio silent on Facebook’s clear and present threat, they’ll be frittering away much more than their market cap. They’ll be gambling with their greatness. And that would be a huge mistake. –Elowitz is co-founder and CEO of media company Wetpaint.