Social Networks and Search fill two unconnected niches online. While the former is mainly about remaining connected to your friends (both online and offline), search is about getting things done. Greg Sterling has neatly presented the idea in his article at SearchEngineLand:
Comparing Google and Facebook today, one could argue that Facebook (other than its “communication” tools for some) hasn’t really become indispensable. If you’re younger than 27 you might have a different view. But it’s still mostly about some form of entertainment, broadly defined. Google and search more generally, by contrast, is about getting things done as well as entertainment. Search is used billions of times every month for a range of purposes.
He also goes on to mention that Social Networks face a monetization issue as their is no effective method yet to make advertising a big hit on social networks. This makes sense because the reason you click on an ad while searching is because you are mostly looking for something and when an ad can target your need. On social networks there is hardly anything that you are searching for materialistically. Its about the intangible stuff and they are hard to advertise on.
Still, my focus here is on whether (and how) social networks can trump search. My point is that social networks will grow to embrace search and as such any other online application that meets a specific need. This implies a whole ecosystem centered around the users profile with other online applications available within the same system.
The next question is whether FaceBook could be replacing Google or any of the search biggies. Again, the concept of a social network is flexible to take the battle either way. For instance, while you are logged in Gmail, with chat on, you are essentially logged into ‘your’ network. Add a few more features around it and Gmail becomes your social network.
It all comes down to data and to what extent users are comfortable with their data being used to work the feedback loop. The more you use the network, the more the algorithms can be trained to mine information from the web that you may find interesting. If it works with Ads, then a similar system could be generalized across the web to feed ‘relevant’ data to people.
And it is this data that web companies are trying to get the most of. More the data, more the relevant content that can be pushed out to users. Perhaps that explains Google’s moves to make the search page the landing page for content (with universal search and inline videos). Similarly a compelling search feature from FaceBook could make things interesting compared to Google. Either way, the future belongs to where the lies, which implies getting more people to sign-up. In that regard, social networks will trump search.