Google vs. the Real-Time Web

Just how big a threat is the real-time web to Google (s goog)? As Om has pointed out, real-time content marks a still-amorphous but important new phase of evolution in the web, allowing for the instantaneous discovery of newly added information. And Twitter and Facebook are emerging as an alternative to the traditional engine, which presents a big challenge to Google’s core business. As Larry Page admitted this week, the company finally gets that.

It’s easy to imagine Google falling further behind in the real-time content game. The company’s slow entry puts it in the position Yahoo has held for years in search: behind the leader, always playing catch-up instead of spending creative energy on new advances. Google has struggled with social content, producing mixed results. Orkut, for example, was a hit in Brazil, but not in other major markets; initiatives like Friend Connect have shown little traction. It’s had better success as a search partner, as with its MySpace deal.

Google’s search engine has thrived because PageRank uses democratic algorithms that tracked page links. By contrast, real-time discovery engines like Twitter and Facebok use a more dynamic kind of democracy, linking to content that users finds worthwhile. As a result, content on the web is splitting into two basic models, and understanding this distinction makes clear why Google’s centralized role is being threatened.

Simply put, it’s the difference between discovery and search, between the “Now Web” and the “Then Web.” Here’s a more specific analogy: In college, most of us spent a lot of time in the library but also in a social hub like the campus coffee shop. One was a place for digging up information, the other a more dynamic, conversational setting, where ideas were casually exchanged. Google has been the web’s library: archival, organized and oriented around research. Twitter and Facebook, on the other hand, are coffee shops: instantaneous, conversational and oriented around discovery.

I doubt Google will ever make a good coffee shop. But I also don’t see real-time content shutting down its library. Instead, it’s breaking open a new arena of the web over which Google has little control. That makes Google more of a specialized player, but still relevant.

Of course, Google is going to try to dominate this new terrain, just as it does in search. To that end, it essentially has three immediate options: It can buy Twitter or Facebook. It can create a competitor to them on its own. Or it can partner with them – maybe indexing their content into its search and even buying a small investment stake to deter similar deals with Yahoo (s yhoo) and Microsoft (s msft).

A buyout is unlikely: Twitter has said it’s not for sale and Facebooks seems more interested at raising money to remain independent. Google’s efforts to replicate their success on its own, meanwhile, have disappointed. So it’s more likely to forge partnerships, giving it a place at the table but not the lead spot.

Such an ancillary role won’t satisfy Google for very long. Sharing more and more of the pie with others can’t really be much of an option at the Googleplex. In that case, Google has one last, longer-term option – hitting the upstarts where they are weak. For Twitter, that means its lack of an efficient filter. Google built a great filter for the millions of URLs scattered on the web. Its engineers will be working to do the same for real-time content with the hope that Google can maintain its role as gatekeeper to the web.

But whether or not Google succeeds, its presence in real-time search would push Twitter and Facebook to innovate that much faster, thus accelerating the web’s evolution even more.