Back when Facebook first removed the messaging function from its main site and asked people to use Messenger instead, many wondered what on earth Zuckerberg and co. were doing. After all, users rarely like change, least of all when it’s forced upon them. Nor are they keen on having to use two different services when one had previously sufficed.
Over the last few months, though, it’s become increasingly clear that Messenger was always destined to become much more than a simple messaging service. Initially, experimentation with money transfer services, games and other new features led us to believe it was a new cashpot for Facebook, with the network finding additional monetisation opportunities outside of the main site.
But with the announcement of M -- the AI-powered personal assistant tool that will sit inside Messenger -- Facebook’s true intentions have just become clear. This is how Facebook will challenge Google’s dominance in the world of search. And if you crunch the numbers, it’s not hard to see why Google should be pretty concerned by Facebook’s ambitions.
China aside, our data shows that just under 90% of Internet users across the world are visiting Google in some form each month. Search engines remain the most popular genre of Web site and are the biggest go-to point when people are searching for more information about products (about 50% of digital consumers say they go to them first when researching an item, compared to around a quarter who visit social networks as a primary source for this purpose). That Google has the current advantage is therefore pretty clear.
That acknowledged, using search engines for product research is less common among younger groups (from about 40% among 16-24s to almost 60% among 55-64s). What’s more, social networks are now ahead of search engines for visitation on mobile, particularly among the key 16-24 demographic.
Given that the experience of using a PC is so different from a mobile device, we shouldn’t of course be surprised that search behaviours on the two devices are at odds with each other. But with mobiles becoming more and more important Internet access points, Facebook has a huge advantage here. It’s not that there’s a shortage of voice-powered search tools out there; from Apple’s Siri to Microsoft’s Cortana, there are high-profile alternatives that have been in the marketplace for some time. Nevertheless, they don’t have a reach comparable to that of Facebook and they are not embedded inside a network/activity that is so integral to daily lives and which has been embraced so enthusiastically on mobile.
Look at current behaviours online and the size of Facebook’s potential audience for M is impressive to say the least. Although it’s coming to Messenger first, if we group this messaging service with Facebook’s other big three platforms -- i.e., Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram -- then some 84% of online adults outside of China are using at least one of them each month. Equally important is that Messenger continues to grow extremely quickly, especially now that users are not required to have an account on Facebook itself.
Naturally, some perspective is essential here. At the moment, fewer than 15% of Internet users say they regularly use voice control functions on their mobile. Even so, 50% of mobile Web users say they are turning to voice tools more frequently than they did a year ago, with convenience and speed being cited as the top reasons for this. And that’s pretty key: Facebook’s M is very much in line with how search tools are set to involve, becoming more intuitive and responsive at the same time they are becoming less reliant on AdWords (which have been the powerhouse behind Google search behaviours to date).
Certainly, Google remains the premiere destination for traditional searches. This won’t change any time soon, especially as it’s all too easy to overestimate the speed with which consumer behaviours tend to evolve. Yet there’s little doubt that we’ll see a move away from simplistic searches powered by AdWords to a much more comprehensive process whereby AI-powered tools can anticipate a user’s needs, advise them on the best course of action and then complete tasks on their behalf. Combine Facebook’s vast audience size with its behavioural data and willingness to invest in new tech, and it’s pretty clear that -- for the time being at least -- Zuckerberg and co. have stolen a lead over Google.