Facebook Inc (FB) has long been one of the biggest competitors to Google, Alphabet’s (GOOG, GOOGL) dominant search engine, locking horns in a perpetual battle for digital advertising dollars. And business is good.
Both companies own some of the world’s most valuable online real estate: Google is the No. 1 website in the globe, followed by Facebook and YouTube.
As advertisers surrender piles of cash to the two behemoths, Wall Street has taken notice: FB stock is up 26% over the past year while GOOG stock is sitting on 36% over the same time frame.
While FB has always competed for advertiser’s dollars, it’s never posed an imminent threat to Google’s bread-and-butter search business.
But new reports that Facebook has developed a fully functional in-app browser in an effort to keep users within the confines of its “walled garden” suggest — to me at least — that Mark Zuckerberg could be taking direct aim at Google and its dominance in search.
FB Stock: May I Monetize Your Time?
Facebook already has a web browser, but its functionality is unimpressive to say the least. In the current one, you can merely follow links to other websites.
The new one allows you to go back and forth between websites, bookmark pages, and crucially, enter URLs into the search bar.
That last feature could be the giveaway — FB is only testing the app with a small number of Apple (AAPL) iOS users, so not everything the in-app browser can do is fully known to the public. But if you’re Facebook, and you’re letting users enter other URLs into the search bar, you’re also going to see a lot of users input search terms into that field.
If I were Zuckerberg, I’d let users search the web that way — through the Facebook browser — for a while, and power searches by Google. Then, after developing a competent search engine, I’d flip on the switch and start powering searches that way.
It’s not entirely inconceivable, especially since Facebook has been working on search for years now. True, FB has never attempted a standalone search engine, and the glaring limitation with previous initiatives like Facebook Graph Search has been the self-containment issue. Instead of scouring data from the whole web, they’ve aimed to simply scour Facebook.
Even if FB never tries to supplant Google in search, the development of an in-app web browser that keeps you within the Facebook app is a bad omen for GOOG stock holders.
Recent initiatives like Instant Articles and Facebook Video have succeeded in getting users to spend more and more time on its site at the direct expense of top web destinations like Google.
As it stands, Facebook is winning that battle: The most recent numbers from Alexa.com, the average visitor spends 21 minutes and 28 seconds per day on Facebook, or 18% more than the 18 minutes and 12 seconds the average visitor spends on Google.
While I certainly feel Google is the best and the brightest when it comes to search, I refuse to believe that its lead is insurmountable. Nothing in tech is.
Considering Zuckerberg isn’t afraid to disrupt anything and everything — he wants Facebook Messenger to disrupt the phone number — I wouldn’t write off Facebook’s in-app browser.
As of this writing, John Divine was long AAPL stock. You can follow him on Twitter at @divinebizkid or email him at email@example.com.