When the value of a social-media business depends on content that consumers give it for free, disappointing users is a sure route to oblivion.
Just ask Myspace and Friendster.
That's why Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has to balance the need for Facebook revenue growth against the quality of the Facebook user experience every time the company rolls out a major new feature.
But that high-wire act may prove just a warm-up to the complicated challenge Zuckerberg has created for himself and his team now that Facebook has launched a search service.
It's not just that he's taken direct aim at Google, a company with a 12-year head start on search technology and an income statement whose revenue and profit dwarf those of Facebook.
But Zuckerberg has also just launched a service which, if it succeeds as hoped, will likely change the Facebook user experience more than any other feature has.
That's because search is one of the Internet's killer apps, alongside e-mail, e-commerce, digital entertainment and free voice calls (the last of which Facebook also rolled out last week).
Internet users conduct billions of searches a day via services from Google, Yahoo, Microsoft. If Facebook's search app produces helpful results, users will use it. A lot.
Yet if it does, Facebook is almost certain to allow online marketers to start advertising on its search results, just as the company does with its Timeline and News Feed features.
Zuckerberg said at the search event last week that those are the "three pillars" of Facebook, and it would be naive to think the company doesn't have a plan to make money from this new third pillar, just as it does for its other two.
But here's the thing: Once users' own profiles and pictures start popping up in the search results of people they don't know -- which will be true for all users who allow their content to be viewed by "friends of friends" or the public at large -- the experience will make clear an uncomfortable truth about the social network.
That is, even though users feel that they own their profiles and pages, every photo and piece of text they've ever posted on them belongs to Facebook.
Facebook even "owns" the knowledge of your interests, which you express every time you click on a "Like" button.
Another thing that will soon become clear to search users is that the Facebook community is made up not just of consumers but also businesses, organizations and celebrities -- all with a product to sell or brand to promote -- and all with Fan pages on Facebook.
They're the ones that began putting ads in your Facebook News Feed last year.
After last week, it's easy to imagine that any corporation or small business or musician or artist or non-profit -- or any other entity you've ever "Liked" on Facebook, or even commented on -- will someday have an opportunity to place an ad on your search results, just as they do on Google's.
As in the past, Zuckerberg's challenge will be to walk the high wire -- providing enough value to advertisers to compete with Google, balanced against the need to protect both the quality and uniqueness of the Facebook experience.
Like a Flying Wallenda, he's already got years of experience in leaning this way, then that, and his experience continues apace.
Last year, Facebook tried to implement a facial-recognition technology across the globe, then dialed it back in September after European regulators said it broke their privacy rules.
Last month, Facebook told users of its Instagram unit that the pictures they post could be made available to advertisers, which was another way of saying that from now on, they really belong to Facebook, which bought the website last summer for $1 billion.
After an uproar, Facebook relented and delayed the implementation of those changes -- until last week, when its new search feature buried that news.
Image search plays role
Clearly, we now know why Zuckerberg was so keen to snap up the site with the great photo-sharing technology: The ability to search images, as well as text and video, will be an important part of Facebook search, especially good for use in online dating applications, which already exist on Facebook.
With its new image and text search service, the company will be giving users a very big push toward the edge of the privacy comfort zone.
That's not to say users won't get used to it.
On the contrary, Zuckerberg's record of successfully managing previous product roll-outs is why his company was sold to the public last May for $100 billion.
As of Friday, its market cap was $64.3 billion.
But it will take all of his high-wire skills if the new search function is going to be adopted widely enough to compete with search rivals, and in turn help Facebook grow revenue fast enough to justify its rich valuation.
John Shinal has covered tech and financial markets for 15 years at Bloomberg Businessweek, San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch, Wall Street Journal Digital Network and others.
(c) Copyright 2013 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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