Did Google lose? I’m not so sure… by “losing” it may have just pulled off one of the savviest negotiations I’ve ever seen. Google may never have been interested in Facebook, only in pumping up its value to ensure Microsoft overpaid.
Because Google is planning to destroy Facebook’s value.
Facebook – like all social network sites – is a walled garden. It’s like a cellphone company that only allows its users to call people on the same network – for example if you were a Rogers cellphone user, you wouldn’t be allowed to call your friend who is a Bell cellphone user. In Facebook’s case you can only send notes, play games (like my favourite, scrabblelicious) and share info with other people on Facebook. Want to join a group on Friendster? To bad.
Social networking sites do this for two reasons. First, if a number of your friends are on Facebook, you’ll also be inclined to join. Once a critical mass of people join, network effects kick in, and pretty soon everybody wants to join.
This is important for reason number two. The more people who join and spend time on their site, the more money they make on advertising and the higher the fees they can charge developers for accessing their user base. But this also means Facebook has to keep its users captive. If Facebook users could join groups on any social networking site, they might start spending more time on other sites – meaning less revenue for Facebook. Facebook’s capacity to generate revenue, and thus its value, therefor depends in large part on two variables: a) the size of its user base; and b) its capacity to keep users captive within your site’s walled garden.
This is why Google’s negotiation strategy was potentially devastating.
MicroSoft just paid $240M for a 1.6% stake in Facebook. The valuation was likely based in part, on the size of Facebook’s user base and the assumption that these users could be kept within the site’s walled garden.
Let’s go back to our cell phone example for a moment. Imagine if a bunch of cellphone companies suddenly decided to let their users call one another. People would quickly start gravitating to those cellphone companies because they could call more of their friends – regardless of which network they were on.
This is precisely the idea behind Google’s major announcement earlier this week. Google launched OpenSocial – a set of common APIs that let developers create applications that work on any social networks that choose to participate. In short, social networks that participate will be able to let their users share information with each other and join each other’s groups. Still more interesting MySpace has just announced it will participate in the scheme.
This is a lose-lose story for Facebook. If other social networking sites allow their users to connect with one another then Facebook’s users will probably drift over to one of these competitors – eroding Facebook’s value. If Facebook decides to jump on the bandwagon and also use the OpenSocial API’s then its userbase will no longer be as captive – also eroding its value.
Either way Google has just thrown a wrench into Facebook’s business model, a week after Microsoft paid top dollar for it.
As such, this could be a strategically brilliant move. In short, Google:
- Saves spending $240M – $1B investing in Facebook
- Creates a platform that, by eroding Facebook’s business model, makes Microsoft’s investment much riskier
- Limit their exposure to an anti-trust case by not dominating yet another online service
- Creates an open standard in the social network space, making it easier for Google to create its own social networking site later, once a clear successful business model emerges