Oct 152010

Editor’s note: Pete Cashmore is founder and CEO of Mashable, a popular blog about social media. He writes a weekly column about social networking and tech for CNN.com.

(CNN) — Facebook this week announced a major partnership with Bing. Your Facebook connections now affect the search results delivered by Microsoft’s search engine.

The update means that a box will be added to Bing search results showing relevant Web links that have been “liked” by your Facebook friends. What’s more, when you search for a name, Bing will mine your social network to show people you might know.

And yet Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took a curious tack when announcing the partnership. He first explained why Facebook partnered with Bing — Microsoft is the “underdog” in search, he said, and is therefore more willing to try new things to gain market share.

Cynics might point out an alternative explanation: Google remains a dominant force on the Web and has hinted at an upcoming social service called “Google Me.” By supporting Microsoft’s search efforts, Facebook can weaken a much stronger rival.

That’s not the curious part, however. What’s interesting is that Facebook actually claimed to have no interest in building a search engine — one of the Web’s most lucrative businesses and one which Facebook must master to conquer Google.

To quote Zuckerberg: “One of the most important things on the Web is search. So we started thinking … ‘What would social search look like?’ “

“The thing that makes Microsoft a great partner for us is that they really are the underdog here, and because of that they’re in a structural position where they’re incentivized to just go all out and innovate. … So that’s actually made Microsoft a really good ally for us and a really good partner in a lot of these complex areas that we have no interest in building things out around, but are really complex like search.”

Did Facebook just claim it has no interest in building a search engine?

If true, the admission is a bombshell. Are we to believe that the long-awaited showdown between Google and Facebook — where the upstart social network challenges the Mountain View giant with a truly personalized search engine — might never happen? I’m not so sure.

There are a few explanations as to why Zuckerberg can make this claim.

One is that he’s simply bluffing — building a search engine is extremely complex and it could be months or years before Facebook’s search strategies start to materialize. By the time those plans come together, Zuckerberg’s words will be long forgotten.

Another possibility is that he misspoke.

A third option: Facebook wants to take on Google via the backdoor. If Facebook really wants to move quickly to build a social search engine, it can’t spend years developing world-beating search technology in-house.

Instead, it could move quickly to combine Bing search and Facebook “like” data to completely redefine search.

The finished product would use Bing to index the Web, but use Facebook’s treasure trove of personal data to rank results differently for every user. Better still: It could host the new engine on Facebook.com, thus training users to think of Facebook as a search engine.

Facebook would always retain the option to replace Bing with its own technology, however, since the “secret sauce” is Facebook’s social layer rather than the Web search technology.

Does Facebook have “no interest” in building out a search engine? Of course not. But might Facebook let someone else handle the “search” part while the company focuses on the “social” — at least until it perfects its own technology?

I think that’s the likely outcome.

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