Meta’s Abandoned Shopping Cart: How Mark Zuckerberg’s Commerce Plans Went WrongView Now

Feb. 5, 2022 5:00 AM PST

Before I was an entrepreneur, my career as a tech journalist was marked by covering one story: the rise of the Facebook and Google advertising duopoly and everything it shaped. 

I started following Facebook as a cub college reporter when it had a few hundred users. Google was my first big corporate beat at The Wall Street Journal, and I spent years chasing its every move. My first major experience covering mergers and acquisitions was Microsoft’s attempt to buy Yahoo, a deal motivated by Microsoft’s need to compete with Google and Facebook. I loved everything about the story—both the part about how these new gatekeepers were changing business as we knew it, and the rivalry between them.

Then the duopoly deeply disrupted the journalism industry itself. Many publications tried to take Facebook and Google head-on and compete for online ad dollars. I saw an opportunity to focus on what the duopoly could never do—quality journalism—and became an entrepreneur. Yeah, I guess you could say I’m a little obsessed.

And so, I am feeling a tad nostalgic this week, because this week’s earnings reports clearly signal the end of an era in tech. No, online advertising is not going away, nor has it hit a ceiling. And no, Facebook, whose disappointing financial guidance for the current quarter triggered the largest market capitalization wipeout in history, isn’t doomed. Facebook and Google (or Meta Platforms and Alphabet, as they are now known) are still printing money from online ads and will for a long time. They are both cash machines.

But it’s naive to think of them as competing in the same business, the way we have for the past decade; their fortunes are far less entwined than they once were. In the last quarter, Alphabet’s revenue growth topped analysts’ expectations, growing 32% to Meta’s 20% with more than twice as much revenue. Meta signaled that growth in the current quarter could be very weak.

And we were reminded that you don’t have to be an “ads business” to be making a lot of money from online ads. Amazon revealed for the first time that it took in $31.2 billion in ads 2021, equivalent to about eight Snaps or a quarter of Meta. 

The upshot is that investors, reporters, consumers and regulators should move beyond the duopoly idea. Meta, I believe, is more about the entertainment business. It makes money when its users spend time on the service and see an ad they want to respond to directly—a sweater they want to buy, an app they want to download and so forth. It is also in the communication business with messaging, but doesn’t make money from it yet.

The Google part of Alphabet is also in the entertainment business, thanks to YouTube. But it’s mainly in the information business, with search ads constituting most of its revenue.

These businesses have very different competitors and vulnerabilities. It won’t surprise you that I think information is stickier. (I named my company after it.) Facebook is competing with TikTok and Snapchat and whatever the next consumer play is for people’s time. Google search isn’t really competing with anyone. That’s the one clear story from this week’s quarterly reports.

The other story that really fires up my reporting juices has to do with a company I haven’t even mentioned yet: Apple. Last year, Apple began allowing users to decide whether they wanted to be tracked by non-Apple services like Facebook. And as Meta likes to remind us at every turn, this has been a huge headwind for the company. The new policies make it harder for Facebook and Instagram to prove the effectiveness of their ads to marketers, because it is harder to “close the loop” and prove the ad led to a purchase. 

Google is more immune to Apple’s move. For one, Google has its own tracking ecosystem through Android and Chrome. And the people who use it are generally more in shopping mode, making it easier for the service to prove its value to advertisers. 

Time will tell how much of a drag these tracking restrictions will be on Meta’s business, especially relative to Google’s. But I suspect that when we look back, we will see that Apple has delivered one of the death blows to the monolithic Facebook-Alphabet duopoly for sure. For a company that has never managed to build a significant digital ads business, that’s a feat. Well played, Tim Cook, well played.

The question now is what to do once we erase the duopoly from our heads. Well, investors should stop expecting companies that sell online ads to trade in the same direction. And we should stop thinking of all these platforms as competitors in the same business. The new reality may make it easier for regulators to challenge Facebook’s and Google’s respective market powers (but then again, if Facebook is showing how vulnerable it is to new competition, maybe not.)

Putting on my reporter hat again, I think it’s also a reminder for those of us with a mission to chronicle the industry that we’re at another inflection point in tech. The future will be defined by new rivalries between businesses and personalities. The battlefield of the tech and talent they are fighting over will look very different too. Heck, the leaders of Facebook and Google know it—they renamed their companies, after all. 

My two cents is that the next big rivalries will look and feel a lot less like traditional tech rivalries and will spread far beyond what we think of as tech companies today. That’s a product of their own success, as they pump their fortunes into new focuses. Alphabet doesn’t seem to care much about the metaverse, nor does Meta care about self-driving cars—at least for now. 

Perhaps that’s the biggest difference from when I grabbed my reporter’s notebook in 2005. Back then, I could follow one rivalry and more or less cover many of the biggest tech issues. Today, the industry is much more complex, with alliances and rivalries reaching across sectors.

There are times I miss the simpler days—but not often. For a reporter who loves watching technology reinvent just about everything, this new world is a lot more fun.

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