As consumers migrate from traditional media, marketers are desperately seeking new ways to sell their products online. While Google's advertising services have effectively delivered ads to audiences via searches, social media users have proven elusive.
According to a key player at Facebook, Google is currently ill-equipped to reach the social media market.
"I think that Google would be the first to admit that they've probably not done as good a job on the branding side," said Colm Long, director of Facebook's online global operations, in an interview with Big Think. "That's certainly been the feedback from their partners and advertisers."
Long ought to know. He spent four years at Google as the company's EMEA director, and with internet behavior shifting dramatically towards social media, Long sees an entirely new market emerging for brands to engage with consumers.
Since 2000, Google's ability to match search queries with relevant text ads has pioneered the market for search advertising. Its core advertising product, AdWords, continues to lead the industry leader reaping Google over $21 billion in revenue in 2008.
Today, Knowledge Networks published a study reporting 83% of the internet population actively participates in social media, and, while Long acknowledges Google has done a "phenomenal job" in bringing the direct response model online, he believes this strategy cannot capture the attention of social media users.
One of social media's immense advantages is its ability to allow users to generate content and drive conversations. This poses a particular challenge for advertisers insistent on absolute control over their brand and their message. For companies bold enough to share brand ownership with their customers, Long sees a tremendous opportunity to achieve a more meaningful engagement.
"If you think about the strongest marketing vehicle in the world, it's word-of mouth," Long said. "You're much more likely to buy something that's recommended from a friend you trust and whose opinion you respect than any marketing tool or advertisement."
Facebook is uniquely positioned to capitalize on this opportunity. With over 200 million users, the social network is pitching a suite of marketing products - Ads, Pages, Connect and Applications - to companies and is working with some of the biggest brands in the world, including Adidas, Coca-Cola, U2 and The New York Times.
Facebook is also experimenting with interactive campaigns that Long sees as the future of online marketing. The new Facebook marketing page promotes a selection of them which include a combination of applications with quizzes, polling and rich media.
There continues to be skepticism over monetizing social networks and Facebook is not immune from the revenue puzzle. Knowledge Networks found that only 5 percent of people on social media use it for guidance on buying decisions and only 16 percent say they are more likely to buy from companies who advertise on these sites.
One testament to this is reflected in Obama's expenditures from the 2008 campaign. While both Google and Facebook highlight their respective roles in getting him elected, it was with Google that Obama spent nearly half of his online advertising budget.
Google isn't simply ignoring the power of social media audiences either. "They are thinking hard about very hard about this," Long said and added that the 2006 acquisition of YouTube is a big component in their strategy.
As iterations of marketing services continue to evolve, Long sees room in the sandbox for both companies to succeed. "There's a big, big market and there's probably enough to go around for everybody."
Ultimately, he said, "I think we're pretty well-positioned to make an impact there."
Geoffrey Decker is an editor for the social media start-up whereIstand.com