Facebook, Google & Beyond: Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz & Ben Elowitz of Wetpaint Debate the Future of Information and Relationships

Among the “Gang of Four” tech giants that Google Chairman Eric Schmidt says are driving consumer technology innovation, two iconic companies—Google and Facebook—are battling for an important title: Who will dominate the means of accessing, sorting, and connecting to the Internet’s flood of information.

With Facebook on the rise, and Google’s self-professed stumbles in seizing its own pipeline of social data, there’s been a fair amount of speculation about Google’s prospects for holding onto its position.

Here in Seattle, we happen to have two entrepreneurs who know a boatload about the ways that consumers and businesses are navigating the 21st century playing field for information. They have informed and sometimes sharply opposing views. And they happen to be friends. I figured this would make for an interesting discussion.

Ben Elowitz is one of the many people who have declared search engine optimization dead. With the rise of social networks as a primary homebase for consumers online, he says, the days of using a complex portfolio of tactics to rank higher in Google results is going the way of the dinosaurs.

As the head of Seattle-based online media startup Wetpaint, Elowitz says this development is just great—he sees the fragmentation of content in a search-dominated world as divisive for publishers.

Rand Fishkin, however, would have to object. As the CEO of Seattle’s SEOmoz, a search-marketing software company, Fishkin has made a career (and many international speaking engagements) of mastering search engine optimization.

He’s an expert on Google’s ever-changing algorithm, including its attempts to corral social media data. He’s also a leading advocate for “white-hat” SEO tactics—growing genuine prominence and relevance without trying to game the system.

In a busy downtown coffee shop recently, I set up the broad topics and mostly tried to stay out of the way as Elowitz and Fishkin covered all kinds of fascinating territory: When Facebook will get into search, and whether Microsoft is effectively blocking the effort; why Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) should buy Color and Quora right away, at any price; and whether it’s scarier for society to have Google or Facebook holding the master keys to the way we sift the Web.

At one point, we jokingly decided that in this debate, Fishkin was basically just standing for Google while Elowitz was the champion for Facebook:

Fishkin: “I have 30 times your revenue.”

Elowitz: “I’m growing at 69 percent and you’re growing at 3 percent.”

Fishkin: “Dammit!”

What follows are lightly edited excerpts of their conversation, broken into several topics. I’ll start with Elowitz contrasting today’s searches with a fond memory of the dawn of Google as a force in consumer life, a period he’s been reminded about while reading the new book “In the Plex” by journalist Steven Levy.

BEN ELOWITZ: “It’s turning into this exploited commons that then gets so dirty over time that it’s actually stopped serving a use … Remember how magical it was when it came out, because it just knew what the right answer was?

And now I feel like anything that could be commercially gamed, when I type it in, I’m not getting the right answer, I’m getting everybody fighting for it. And what’s worse is when I actually click a page, it’s filled with a bunch of crap that’s for Google’s benefit, not for mine. Google used to try to be a proxy for, what did people really want?”

RAND FISHKIN: “I think one of the most exciting developments in search improvement is actually the melding of social signals and search results. I’m sure you’ve seen Google’s Social Circle results, which I think is the best thing in the world.

Basically, it’ll be like, ‘Oh, you follow me on Twitter, or we’re friends on Facebook,’ so if you’ve shared something on Facebook, that will actually rank higher in the search results and it’ll say ‘Ben Elowitz shared this.’ I think that’s just so brilliant, and I think that’s a real key to the future.

BE: “What really gets to be interesting—this is where I think Facebook’s going to go—is when you start saying, now we have a complete profile of you and people like you, so we know that a tech entrepreneur in Seattle looking for a meetup about SEO is already predisposed to looking for Seattle. We know that when you’re searching for hotels in Israel, you’re likely looking for ones that are going to be four-star (rather) than three-star, because we know your patterns. I don’t think Google’s going to know anybody’s patterns nearly as well as Facebook.”

RF: “There’s a little creepy factor there, but I’ll agree that it could make it more relevant.”

BE: “Well, it may be creepy, but it’s actually better for the user. Really, the nice thing about Facebook is they actually say, ‘Hey, we’re here as a utility to do whatever we can to make your life better, to connect with other people, to share stuff.'”

RF: “And you shouldn’t have privacy anyway! Privacy is dead!” (Laughter)

BE: “Oh, they’re misunderstood.”

RF: “Poor Zuck. It must suck.”

Two main statistics kept popping up: Search is still growing by all kinds of measures, but Facebook is gaining a huge share of the time people spend online. Elowitz also brought up anecdotal examples of Facebook as a primary means for young people of sorting their information—even though the social network hasn’t gone full-bore into search quite yet. Fishkin said the idea of an all-Facebook Web experience should be frightening for marketers or content owners.

BEN ELOWITZ: “It’s a different cohort of people coming in, where they’re saying ‘The world is a social world, and the Facebook pages are just as good as the real pages.'”

RAND FISHKIN: “And this totally scares the crap out of me, right? I think that brands who create their online presence on Facebook and direct you to Facebook are crazy. Like, absolutely insane.

Facebook should be a great place to do marketing. Your Facebook page can provide all these great insights, like—you can install a Facebook Insights widget on your website, and you can get all this great demographic data about who’s logged in. That’s awesome.

But to say ‘I’m going to give up control of my brand to Facebook, who can then do whatever they want with it, and I will not own that space’—that’s like AOL in the ’90s.”

BE: “Well, they’ve already given up their control to Google and the SEO world.”

RF: “No, no.”

BE: “By saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to engineer our site to be more what Google wants than what our consumers want.'”

RF: “That’s crazy. That’s like saying ‘We’ve given up our control to e-mail because e-mail marketing drives a bunch,’ or ‘We’ve given up our control to Twitter because Twitter drives traffic.'”

BE: “Whenever you have users on Facebook for four hours a month, it’s the user that’s in charge. You don’t want to pull them out of it.” [Average time spent on Facebook in April was even higher than that, according to Nielsen.]

RF: “But Facebook owns and controls those pages. Of course they don’t. That’s exactly the point. If I want to customize my website to have a better conversion rate, I can do whatever I want. I can control the experience. I own that page. If something happens, I can do whatever I want. On Facebook, it’s all about their rules, their restrictions, their limitations. It can’t be customized.”

BE: “Tons of limitations. And yet, that’s where the users are.

“When you build a store in the shopping mall, you have to abide by the mall’s guidance about what your hours are, what your store design looks like, what your signage looks like, and you do it, because that’s where the traffic is. And in the same way, if you’re a brand, you’re crazy if you don’t have a really important Facebook presence.”

RF: “And you should have a presence. But I think making Facebook your primary traffic portal strikes me as insane.”

Discussing the prospects for Facebook getting much more aggressive with trying to be the entry point for consumer search, particularly in light of its partnership with Microsoft’s Bing, Fishkin said there’s a long way to go—and wonders whether Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) got a juicy concession for its $240 million investment a few years back.

RAND FISHKIN: “Facebook has fewer searches per month than Ask.com. They drive no search volume at all, with a few exceptions. There’s people who use it and like it, but even so, I think Bing’s investment in 2007 in Facebook—I don’t know how long the agreement lasts, but I suspect they have a long agreement that Facebook can’t drive Web search directly. It could even be as long as Microsoft is a major owner inside of Facebook.

BEN ELOWITZ: “Well, minor-major owner.”

RF: “Well, I should put it: ‘We invested in you when you were $15 billion, and now you’re $60 billion or $70 billion.'”

BE: “I don’t think Facebook is going to bow to Steve Ballmer.”

RF: “Oh, I doubt they do.”

BE: “And I would even doubt that they would be willing to sign away those rights.”

RF: “But I bet they did in 2007 when they weren’t even thinking search at all.”

BE: “They’ve been very consistent about not tying their fortunes to everybody … those [Facebook] guys are very bullish on themselves, they know how much power they have, they’ve known it since day one, and they haven’t signed away very many rights.”

Elowitz said the reason users are becoming so much more engaged with Facebook, and why he thinks it has such huge potential to disrupt Google in the future, goes beyond the fact that Facebook controls so much valuable data. A huge part of the secret, he believes, is that Facebook is more personal than Google’s math-based approach, and users can sense it.

BEN ELOWITZ: “That sense of robot vs. human? I think that’s Google’s Achilles’ heel right now, is that they look at everything from a computer science algorithm standing.”

RAND FISHKIN: “Well, so does Facebook, they just use user data versus crawl data.”

BE: “I think the center of the universe at Google is the machine, and then the people are around it. The people orbit the machine. And at Facebook, it’s reversed. So you have people playing an important role in both of them, but you are at the center of Facebook’s universe, your profile page, that is the nexus.

And with Google, it’s not. It’s an empty white box that’s trying frantically to fill in as fast as you type, and it’s going only off of what you type in and as much data as they can gather around that. Facebook actually knows you, does it’s best to know you, because they don’t consider your query words to be the center of the universe.”

I pointed out that Elowitz, in a blog post late last year, declared the SEO was dead and would be replaced by social media optimization—it even included a funny tombstone graphic with “R.I.P.” drawn in blood. But Fishkin’s contention seems to be that, as Google embraces more social signals in its algorithm, the thing that is dying is mechanical, low-quality SEO—not the entire field.

RAND FISHKIN: “If it said ‘R.I.P. crap-hat SEO,’ I’d be right there with you. But if you were saying ‘R.I.P. anyone trying to rank higher in search engines,’ I’d be like: ‘But, double the number of searches are happening, and there’s like 300 million more searchers than there were this time last year.’ Why would I stop trying to get that traffic? It just strikes me as insane. But I’m with you that what the non-technorati think about as SEO is dying, or died a long time ago. At least I wish it did.”

BEN ELOWITZ: “And yet, it still probably generates more time, money spent, more effort than the really good stuff that you endorse.”

RF: “Agreed. It’s a sad thing to say. I look at the industry that I love, and a lot of the people that I love in the industry, and I recognize that many of them are doing the same old kinds of crap tactics that I wish didn’t work, but unfortunately still do work. And Google has a long way to go to get over that hump.”

BE: “And this is my point about Google vs. Facebook and the dataset, is that Google is looking for signals of what people really do based on correlations, and ‘This signal type means something happened here that indicates users really care about it.’

And on the other hand, increasingly, Facebook … just knows what people really care about. It’s not having to guess, it’s not having to interpret the signs and artifacts.”

Fishkin questioned whether Facebook would be able to expand successfully into broad Web search, for two reasons: It’s still a very difficult technical problem, and it’s also hard for consumer brands to expand too far beyond what people originally signed up for. He draws a parallel with Microsoft from the dot-com era.

RAND FISHKIN: “One of the things that’s weird to me is that MSN, back in the day, was like ‘Wow! Forty percent of users spend half their time on the MSN network or MSN-powered sites, we need to be all these other things,’ right? And they could never make a go of it.

And Google was like, ‘Oh, we’re this massive search engine, lets build Orkut, we’ll be the next social network. Oh wait, that didn’t work. Alright, you know what? We’ll do Buzz because we want to be the connecting point—oh, no that didn’t really work.’ … They’ve had some successes. But it is very hard to convert consumers. Even Facebook, trying to say ‘Do your status updates here,’ and yet 180 million people do their status updates on Twitter. Even for them to say, ‘You should do your check-ins on Facebook,’ and they’re like ‘Nope—I’m going to do them on Foursquare, sorry.'”

BEN ELOWITZ: “Yeah, but if you’re saying that Facebook won’t succeed at entering a new business that its users already want them to do or are already sitting in that environment to do it, I think that’s very different than saying Microsoft—one of the worst online executors the world has ever seen—couldn’t extend the MSN brand to take over the Internet.”

RF: “Agreed. (Laughter) But Google’s a great operator, and they couldn’t get into things that —“

BE: “Google’s a great operator on machine-driven topics, not on human-driven. And I’m really gratified to see Larry Page saying ‘We’re going to start bonusing based on success in social.’ Which is a Googley approach, where I will develop a machine system of bonusing based on our ability to create machines that achieve human connections, right?”

RF: “Sounds pretty smart to me.” (Laughter)

BE: “It is smart, and I’ll make fun of him for it, but its very Googley. Even better is to really understand it. They’ve got to do some hiring, they’ve got to do some acquisitions. They should buy Color. [The social photo-sharing startup that recently turned lots of heads by raising $41 million in venture capital before its service even debuted to the public.]

RF: “They should buy Color?!”

BE: “Sure.”

RF: “How many users does Color have?”

BE: “It’s not for the users, it’s for the DNA. They should buy Quora.”

RF: “Oh, I see. …

BE: “At whatever the price. Because they don’t have the DNA. Because they think about everything so mechanically. And that’s what’s been rewarded by people in their system, so they need it to be a fresh start.”

Elowitz pointed to relationships as the new valuable currency online, particularly for media producers like his company. Fishkin points out that, instead of being left behind by the rise of social media, Google is assembling a wide array of sources to make search stay relevant in a socially connected world.

BEN ELOWITZ: “Google is an antisocial world with no relationships. It’s purely transactional. And so for media companies, there’s no question that Google has been a giant fragmenter of media, and saying the album no longer matters, and it’s the single piece of content … I don’t care who it comes from, all I care about is give me the ‘most relevant story.’ Google, you decide.

Which is a very scary trend in media, because how do you figure out what the relationship is between you and an author, how do you know who to trust? And on the other hand, Facebook is this environment that says, ‘No, no, let’s rebuild relationships, starting with relationships between you and your friends, and then you as a source.’

And then Facebook can start to do things like say, ‘If you trust these sources, I know who else might, too.’ And it can be useful, with real people behind it all. For media that’s incredibly valuable. You’re getting rid of Google as the intermediary.”

RAND FISHKIN: “And it puts so much more value in the brand, which Google’s talked about for years but never been able to implement truly successfully, because the relationship—there’s no platform for the relationship.”

BE: “Google’s a wrecker of relationships. It’s ‘Where do I get the lowest price? What’s the most relevant topic for this query, for this transaction?'”

RF: “I have built a great relationship with eHow, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” (Laughter)

BE: “I’ve built a relationship with eHow based on my back button.” (Laughter)

RF: “You don’t need to know how to drink a glass of water?”

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2 responses to “Facebook, Google & Beyond: Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz & Ben Elowitz of Wetpaint Debate the Future of Information and Relationships”

  1. I have to admit that the idea of organising people into groups I find very compelling. Right at the moment I don’t share my facebook page with business contacts. I suspect many others have the same issues that a facebook page is about your social life and you quite possibly don’t want to mix that with your business life. I think there may be a cultural aspect to this as well. In the US I think there is less of a divide between private and business life, here in the UK I think we tend to have a firmer divide. Whether that’s a good or bad thing who’s to say but it does impact how we view applications like Facebook from a business standpoint.

    I’m going to be signing up for a Google+ account because I think this is a bold experiment from Google and I’m fascinated to see how it turns out.

    Best regards,