A hardy band of Google competitors—engineers at Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace—have built “Don’t be Evil,” a tool that basically recreates the Search+ experience with social media sites other than Google+. This concretely illustrates one of the lurking problems with Google’s search and social integration: it’s really bad for the search experience. There are a few good explanations for this:

  1. The “Saint Sergey” version: to provide good search results, Google needs social data—and they need to own it, so they’re not just a lesser partner of Facebook and Twitter (and so they’re not beholden to their partners’ whims). Thus, they need to impose a bad experience on users in the short term, in order to keep providing them with good search in the long term.
  2. The cynical version: as we’ve previously argued, it’s Google’s classic embrace-extend-extinguish strategy. Build up the infrastructure on someone else’s data (in this case, Twitter’s), then use that infrastructure to build an in-house version as soon as the user experience with pure in-house data is merely acceptable. (Or are they?)
  3. The realpolitik version: Google is over-investing in social media as a way to plausibly signal their intentions to be a player in the field. They can’t “fake” their commitment by talking up social too much, but they can fake a high level of confidence in their social media strategy, and take advantage of other parties’ responses.

What’s Google’s endgame? If they’re not sure they can win in social, why bet as if they are?

Because this has massive strategic implications for Facebook and Twitter. If Google is bent on world domination, they both need to deal with that. And Google is a serious threat—$2.7bn in quarterly profits, $45bn of cash on hand, and the most-visited site on the web (at least according to comScore). If they’re serious about winning social, they can throw more resources at it than Twitter and Facebook combined—and with supervoting stock keeping investors at bay, and the intrinsic coolness of social media (plus a social-leaning bonus structure) keeping employees interested, Google can just keep throwing more effort into this.

Facebook and Twitter should see this as an existential threat. Either Google has to change course, or someone’s competitive position has to be completely destroyed. And Google is signalling that they won’t change course.

Which means that Facebook and Twitter have a much stronger interest in detente. For Facebook, that could mean selling social data to Google as well as Bing, on similar terms. Twitter is small enough—and sees search as a big enough revenue driver—that selling to Google would make more sense.

The standard caveat to game theory-based thinking applies: we can assume that all players are thinking N moves ahead, so arguing that it’s actually N+1 doesn’t help much. Except that in this case, N+1 is the event horizon: you really can’t plan for a world in which Google or Facebook or Twitter has reached a Microsoft/Myspace level of irrelevance. You can’t plan for that without knowing who will win, especially when the only people whose plans really matter here are also part of that group of three.

And this does have some explanatory power. Google makes their search experience 5% worse, hires a few thousand extra people, and puts on a couple flamboyant press conferences—and in exchange, their big competitors fear for their lives? That’s a cheap bluff.

If this what Google’s up to, how should Facebook and Twitter respond? If Google is forced to temporarily latch a bad social experience onto a good search experience, than grafting a mediocre search experience onto an excellent social experience could be a net win.

And Facebook and Twitter have another advantage there: they are natural homepages. Now that people default to turning on computers at some point during the day (first thing, last thing, and many times in between), their default homepage is less likely to be designed around taking an action (i.e. search). It’s going to be designed around passive consumption that stimulates such action (i.e. news or social—and since most news is in effect a subset of social interactions, that means social).

Google’s bluff is the most parsimonious explanation of their behavior. Facebook and Twitter should raise.

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Why Google is Overinvesting in Social