With Graph Search, Can Facebook Kill LinkedIn, Yelp–Even Google?

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg introduces Graph Search (Photo: Robert Hof)

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Facebook took pains today to tell the world that its new social search serviceGraph Search, is only a very limited tool that it will roll out very slowly over a period of months and years.

But CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his search staff couldn’t help but reveal their enthusiasm for the vast possibilities. For all their professed modesty, what struck me at the company’s press event introducing the service was how specific and broad-ranging Zuckerberg and his Graph Search leaders were about what it could provide: just about everything, potentially, that every company from LinkedIn to Yelp to Foursquare to Match.com to … yes, even Google provides today.

That’s an exaggeration, of course, that even Facebook folks surely didn’t intend. All of those companies have distinct, well-developed services with extensive user bases that are unlikely to shrivel up no matter how good Graph Search turns out to be. In most cases, they will probably retain a durable advantage for years to come. And as Zuckerberg said, it’s very, very early for Facebook search, and search is a devilishly complex discipline to do well.

Still, to hear it from Facebook itself, Graph Search will offers ways to provide similar services, sometimes in potentially easier and more effective ways:

* Recruiting: One of the first examples Facebook provided today was that Graph Search could help in finding qualified candidates for jobs. For instance, Lars Rasmussen, the Facebook director of engineering who heads the Graph Search team, mentioned that he could find people from NASA Ames Research Center who are friends of Facebook employees.

As investors, who bid up LinkedIn’s share a fraction today, no doubt recognize, that company has a pretty good if not exclusive hold on recruiters. And given that finding friends who worked somewhere is a rather specific subset of qualified candidates for a position, there’s not much chance recruiters will abandon LinkedIn for Facebook anytime soon. But Facebook, already used in various ways by recruiters, could siphon off activities that might otherwise have gone to LinkedIn. … Read more at The New Persuaders. But to conclude …

So, to answer the question in the headline: No, Facebook won’t kill any of these companies, certainly not anytime soon. They’re too strong, Facebook has too much still to build and then to prove, and rarely does a company kill another healthy company no matter how good its products are.

Investors may be thinking as much, as they sold Facebook shares to the tune of a 2.7% drop in price today. But if anyone doubted Facebook’s ability to keep disrupting the status quo, they surely shouldn’t doubt it anymore. Even with its baby steps into the search business, Facebook has again set new terms of engagement in the battle for the soul, or at least the cash register, of the Internet.

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Live: LinkedIn Revamps Profile in New Product Push

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

As Forbes observed in a cover story earlier this year, LinkedIn has become something of the anti-Facebook–except that following an uninspiring Facebook IPO, that term is now meant as a compliment instead of a dismissal. Only nominally a social network in the conventional sense of the term, LinkedIn has grown from a company that seemed hopelessly mired in a business niche into a profitable powerhouse that is now indispensable to both recruiters and the rest of us who want to get recruited for a better job.

Today starting a little after 10 a.m. Pacific, it’s holding an event at its Mountain View headquarters offering the press a chance to “meet the new LinkedIn.” Long seen as a fairly static site, LinkedIn earlier this year promised it would be gearing up product innovation. That’s what we’re likely to hear about today. On the agenda are CEO Jeff Weiner; Deep Nishar, senior VP of products and user experience; product manager Aaron Bronzan; Ryan Roslansky, head of content products; product manager Caroline Gaffney; and Joff Redfern, head of mobile products.

I’ll be blogging the highlights here, so keep refreshing for the latest. You can also watch the livestream.

And we’re underway. … OK, now to the news! Mainly, it’s a new LinkedIn Profile. Bronzan says it’s streamlining profile editing, with new tools to connect with your professional network. Top of the page is simpler, with a more prominent photo. Also at the top: a more, yes, Facebook-like (and Twitter-like) section to update your activities instantly. It’s also easier to add new products, skills, etc. on the profile.

There are also more visual indications of your connections. You can zero in on companies, groups, and locations that you have in common with another person with a quick look at his or her profile. Essentially, it’s easier to find common ground more quickly.

To sum up: simplified editing, easier ways to build relationships, and richer insights. This will roll out to all users starting today. You can sign up for an early look here.

Tom White of Macquarie Securities issued a note to investors affirming his “outperform” rating based on the potential for the new profile to spur more user engagement and thus LinkedIn’s value to its core recruiter customers:

We found LNKD’s newly streamlined profile editing tools as perhaps the most interesting take-away from today’s announcement. These new tools aim to make it easier for members to add content and otherwise enrich their overall profile by streamlining how members add data such as skills, certifications, language proficiencies, industry specialties etc. to their profile. By contributing more content to their profile and otherwise ensuring that it is fresh/accurate, a member can improve his/her chance of being “found” on LinkedIn for a potentially interesting professional opportunity. We don’t believe that the average LinkedIn user fully appreciates this dynamic of the platform, and, if LNKD can encourage its members to spend more time updating their profiles, it could drive incremental user engagement on the site (as well as provide more value for LNKD’s recruiter customers). …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

Congrats, Facebook, You’ve Hit 1 Billion Users. Now What?

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

So 1 billion people now visit Facebook at least once a month, according to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who celebrated with that weird new ad. That’s an amazing milestone for a company only eight years old, fully justifying the glut of press coverage this morning. But is it getting too big for its own good?

I’m not just talking about the usual stuff a company faces as it grows very large–antitrust concerns, privacy worries, hiring quality, and the like. Google, Microsoft, IBM, and many others have faced and still face these issues. But such challenges haven’t taken any of them down. And even as they start (or continue) to be concerns for Facebook, they likely won’t sink it either.

The biggest concern I have is whether Facebook could–as a direct result of getting what seems likely to be just about everyone online to use it eventually–lose what’s special about it. After all, is it enough simply to be the biggest social network? Does being the biggest, as Zuckerberg and many others inside and outside the company implicitly assume, automatically make it the best?

I’m not so sure. And that’s without even falling back on the old look-what-happened-to-MySpace argument. The fact is that Facebook doesn’t do a lot of the social activities people participate in online as well as others. Twitter is way better in many ways for disseminating news. LinkedIn still does professional networking far better. No one has made video sharing easier than YouTube (yes, it’s a social service too). Pinterest, Reddit, and others are seeing massive growth thanks to a pretty clear focus on doing one thing well.

And Facebook? As well as it facilitates connections with friends, its overriding appeal is not any particular features. (OK, except for sharing photos–but even there, it felt the need to spend a billion bucks to buy Instagram.) Facebook’s key advantage now is largely that all your friends are on Facebook too.

Of course, that’s a huge technical and business feat for Facebook–nothing to be minimized, as evidenced by the fact that no one else accomplished it. But is that enough to catapult it to the next level?

Maybe. But as its growth slows, I wonder if essentially becoming a social utility that Zuckerberg long said Facebook should be is distinctive enough a mission to maintain its momentum. One random item that gave me pause today came in passing on a BusinessInsider post on Facebook’s recent move to allow advertisers to “retarget” its users with ads:

The most valuable inventory for re-targeting until now has been Yahoo Mail, because:

  • It has huge scale.
  • It’s engaging enough that you’d only want to click on an ad to leave if you really wanted to leave.
  • The people who use it tend to leave it open as a tab in their browser all day.

In all three ways, Facebook.com is very similar to Yahoo Mail.

Yikes. Facebook is now like a boring email service? Now, it’s probably unfair to extrapolate this comparison in a particular realm of advertising to Facebook overall. But it reflects the reality that Facebook’s ubiquity is inexorably steering it toward becoming something like the new television. Another mass medium, even if it’s a uniquely interactive mass medium.

I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, and in fact there’s a lot right with it, for Facebook’s business. I just can’t shake a nagging feeling that achieving this ubiquity–as Zuckerberg put it today, to “connect the rest of the world”–isn’t enough of a raison d’etre.

So the question now is what Facebook will do with that ubiquity. Maybe simply facilitating those connections is enough. But at this milestone moment the company itself chose to highlight, it’s worth posing some existential questions to go along with that existential ad:

Why is Facebook here?

Is sheer ubiquity sufficient for Facebook to achieve Zuckerberg’s lofty goals?

As Facebook becomes a service for everyone, does it become special to no one?

Reid Hoffman: Social Networking Isn’t Over Yet–And Neither Is Facebook

Reid Hoffman

Photo: Wikipedia

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Reid Hoffman is one of the most prolific angel investors in tech startups from Facebook and Zynga to Airbnb and Zipcar. It’s a talent he transferred to more traditional venture capital in 2009 when he joined Greylock Partners. He’s also a cofounder and executive chairman of LinkedIn.

In a “fireside chat” at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco today with TechCrunch founder Mike Arrington, who has since joined the VC world as well with his own CrunchFund, Hoffman proffered comments on everything from Facebook’s struggles to Twitter’s battles with developers. Here, paraphrased at times, is what he had to say:

Q: You are exceptionally wealthy. What changes?

A: There is a bunch of weird things. I had had a long-term plan to be affiliated with universities, like teaching. Overnight all those changed to donor relationships. Also, I would never have imagined I would fly in a private plane by myself, and now I have. It has its advantages.

Q: You wrote a book [The Startup of You]. How’s it doing?

A: It’s sold 120,000. In the consumer Internet space, we’re used to much higher numbers. I don’t think we’ve created a movement yet.

Q: You were one of the very first investors in Facebook.

A: $37,500 at a $5 million valuation. [That means he made 3,000 times his investment, or $111 million.)

Q: So you did very well. What do you think of Facebook’s stock now?

A: I’m a big believer in Facebook’s long-term position. The real question is how it plays out over the next year or so. People’s hand-wringing about not making money on mobile is an innovation problem that is not that hard to solve.

Q: Did Facebook screw up its IPO or was it inevitable it played out that way?

A: In some ways, it was inevitable. You had unprecedented demand, and you couldn’t know NASDAQ servers would go down. We at LinkedIn were criticized for leaving too much money on the table. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

The Top 10 Tech Trends, Straight From the Top 5 Tech VCs

Cross-posted from my Forbes blog The New Persuaders:

Everyone in Silicon Valley wants to know what’s coming next, and every year for the past 13 years, a panel of the most forward-thinking minds in technology and tech finance convenes here to provide a look at what innovations are likely to emerge in the next few years.

Last night it was time again for the Top 10 Tech Trends dinner, hosted by the Churchill Club, which puts on a bunch of Valley events with top tech folks every year. I wrote about last year’s here as well.

This year, the 14th, the panel is especially venture capital-heavy, but these folks are also, to a person, heavyweights in the Valley, so their opinions carry special weight. On the panel: Kevin Efrusy, general partner at Accel PartnersBing Gordon, investment partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & ByersReid Hoffman, partner at Greylock and executive chairman and cofounder of LinkedIn; panel regular Steve Jurvetson, managing director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson; and Peter Thiel, president of Clarium Capital. Moderating the festivities in place of longtime emcee  Tony Perkins, Churchill Club cofounder with Forbes Publisher Rich Karlgaard, are Forbes’ Eric Savitz, San Francisco bureau chief for the magazine, and Managing Editor Bruce Upbin.

The panel portion of the dinner, which attracts several hundred people (you can watch it live here for a fee), starts at 7 p.m. Pacific at the Hyatt Regency Santa Clara. The audience gets to vote–in past years, with red and green cards as well as electronic voting devices. This year, they’ll be using a Twitter-based polling system. Panel members have similar red-green paddles they hold up. I’ll post the highlights as they happen.

And we’re underway. Eric and Bruce will describe each trend and then the owner of that trend, one of the panel members, will explain it.

1) Radical Globalization of Social Commerce: Efrusy explains that companies today will be instantly global, or they will fall behind those that aren’t. For the previous Web generation, international was a distinct minority. Groupon, for example, was half international when it went public last year. If you want to be the leading global player, just leading the U.S. might not be enough. You can’t wait to win the U.S. and then open an office.

The other panel members wave half-red, half-green panels. Gordon, who waved a red, says that’s going to take awhile. Hoffman, also red, said the U.S. is still the most important. Thiel’s in-between, I think, but because he thinks it’s not very interesting. Jurvetson says it’s true, but 12 years old. It’s what every consumer Internet startup has been doing for 12 years. Thiel on second thought thinks it’s a worthwhile rule to go international early to avoid local copycats.

The audience shows mostly greens, matched by about 70% supporting the trend on TwitPolls.

Continue reading

Beyond the Wow Factor: Why LinkedIn’s IPO Matters

It would be easy to take today’s blockbuster initial public offering by business networking service LinkedIn as a sign that the IPO, the fuel for the tech industry’s wealth-creation engine, is back. But one IPO on the first day won’t tell us that. It’s just as easy to dismiss the rocket-ride to well over double its already-raised offering price as a sign of another bubble. Again, one great IPO’s first day doesn’t mean everybody will party like it’s 1999 (though if it’s “brain-dead” to suspect there’s more than a little froth in Internet investing, take me off life support now).

Still, there are many other lessons we should take away from LinkedIn’s IPO. Here are a few:

* Social networking has arrived as more than a cute phenomenon. LinkedIn may not be Facebook or even Twitter, but it’s serious networking, using people’s social connections to create real value. A lot of people already know this, but for the rest, it’s well past time to stop listening to the Luddites who think Facebook and Twitter are nothing but places to tell people what you ate for lunch.

* At the same time, it’s also apparent that social networking won’t be a winner-take-all business. Yes, a lot of businesses and even professionals use Facebook for business purposes, and will continue to do so. But many more people recognize the value in having separate circles of friends, colleagues, business contacts, and the like. Now, I’d bet that Facebook could be the biggest winner–winner-take-most, if you will. But Mark Zuckerberg clearly won’t own everything social.

* This is the first real sign of whether individual-investor interest in IPOs has returned. It was already apparent that the (literally) marquee names like Facebook, or even Zynga or Groupon, would rock the world when they go public. They’ve got fame, huge and fast-growing revenues, and soaring private valuations already, so using them as a proxy for whether smaller fry would go public was always erroneous. LinkedIn, by contrast, is a much smaller business that’s closer to those of dozens of private Internet companies that to date have been unable to provide their venture investors and entrepreneurial teams exits besides getting acquired. You can be sure that those private Internet companies are using LinkedIn to research potential chief financial officers and arranging meetings with Wall Street investment bankers, if they weren’t already.

* Those shady private-market valuations, which have given Facebook, for one, $65 billion-and-up valuations, suddenly don’t look so crazy after all following the first IPO of an actively traded private company on private exchanges such as Second Market and SharesPost. LinkedIn’s $2.4 billion valuation on those marketplaces, in fact, indicates to some that the supposedly savvy investors trading shares privately vastly underestimated the value of these companies. No doubt LinkedIn’s market cap will be volatile, so it’s unwise to think that Facebook suddenly will be worth multiples of its already breathtaking valuation. But it’s clear that the limited number of shares being traded on these exchanges, as well as the limited amount of information these investors had, didn’t necessarily cause them to overpay. At the same time, it’s unlikely the SEC will back off from scrutinizing whether to regulate them–in fact, it may move even more quickly if this IPO sparks renewed interest in the exchanges.

* LinkedIn’s success proves that Web companies aren’t entirely dependent on advertising for revenues, providing hope that other business models such as subscriptions and paid services are credible alternatives. LinkedIn makes most of its revenues not from advertising but from paid services for recruiters and premium subscriptions.

* Nice guys don’t always finish last. Talk to almost any entrepreneur about LinkedIn cofounder and executive chairman Reid Hoffman, and you’ll get nothing but admiration, and not just because he’s an angel investor in many dozens of their startups as well as a partner in the venture capital firm Greylock Partners. Hoffman seems generous with his time–not least, full disclosure, with me as a reporter since LinkedIn’s earliest days. I remember asking him once, years ago, about the libertarian, government-bashing leanings of some of his more famous colleagues from PayPal, and he sighed and recalled how, as the liberal in the bunch, he kept pushing them to give back to people less fortunate than they. Regardless of your politics, though, isn’t it nice to see that you can become a billionaire without being a jerk?

* For individual investors, the rule for Internet company stocks still should be caveat emptor. That $8 billion $9 billion valuation likely won’t stay that high in coming weeks or months, not consistently anyway, as the pent-up enthusiasm for Internet IPOs gets spent (at least until Groupon or Zynga or Facebook cranks it up again). For all the success of LinkedIn as a company and as a bellwether for Internet stock issues, it’s still a speculative play, and its share movement may well drive home yet another lesson: Individual investors should never put money they can’t afford to lose into anything their dentist is investing in, their cabbie mentions, or the press is hyperventilating about.

What’s Coming on the Internet in 2011 (Or Not)

I know I shouldn’t do it–predictions too often are either obvious or wrong–but I can’t help it. If I have to think about what’s coming in 2011, and I do, I might as well inflict those thoughts on the rest of the world. Isn’t that what blogging is all about? Anyway, here’s what I expect to see this year:

* There will be at least one monster initial public offering in tech. Take your pick (in more or less descending order of likelihood): SkypeGroupon, ZyngaDemand MediaLinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook (only if it has to). But despite many stories that will call this event a bellwether,  the IPO won’t bring back anything like the bubble days of the late 1990s (and thank goodness for that) because there are still only a few marquee names that can net multibillion-dollar valuations. UPDATE: Well, so much for that descending order. LinkedIn apparently will be the first to file–though whether it will be a “monster” IPO is another question. UPDATE 2: Well, here’s that monster IPO–since it’s hard to believe Facebook won’t go public if it has to disclose financials anyway. But it likely won’t happen until early 2012. Update 3: Now Groupon appears to be leading the IPO derby. Update 4, 1/20/11: Now it looks like Demand Media will be the first out. Again, not sure that’s the monster one, but if it’s successful, more will come.

* App fever will cool. Good apps that encapsulate a useful task or bit of entertainment–Angry Birds, AroundMe, Google Voice–will continue to do well. But those apps that do little more than apply a pretty layer atop Web content won’t get much traction–and moneymaking opportunities are uncertain in any case. The bigger issue: Once HTML5 becomes the widespread standard for creating Web services, enabling much more interactive Web services right from the browser, I wonder whether the need for separate apps will gradually fade. Continue reading

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