Competition has always been a strong driver of advances in technology. Various big-name companies constantly strive to one-up each other, and when they can't, sometimes they copy the design and features of their competitors in slightly new and different ways to keep up.

But in some niches, a dominant force rises above the rest and achieves a level of sophistication and public recognition so unique, none of its competitors can quite match it. Google has held such as position as the indisputable search engine king for the better part of 20 years.

Until recently, it also held the title for online advertising (thanks in part to its  easy-to-use system, demographic targeting, and cost). But why do we say "until recently?" Because in the past few years, a competitor has arrived to challenge Google in terms of advertising value.

If it hasn't surpassed Google in terms of overall value just yet, it's very close to doing so. And that's Facebook.

What Constitutes Advertising Value

To get a sense of why Facebook has become a comparable -- and possibly even better -- option to Google, take a look at the primary factors that constitute "value" in an online advertising platform:

  • Access and use of user data. A platform should give you as much user information as possible. The more data you have, the more informed your decisions will be. Google offers tons of search volume and history information, but Facebook can dig into  specific habits, behaviors, and interests.
  • Campaign variability and management. A good advertising channel should also offer a degree of flexibility, so it allows users to go in easily and redefine the attributes of a campaign -- even one that's already in progress. Facebook's ad creation tools rival the sophistication and ease of those in Google AdWords, though some still find the point worthy of debate.
  • User experience. Everyone starts out as a beginner, and user experience is a major factor in determining whether a prospective user can get the most value out of a platform. For example, if a person or company struggles to create an effective ad because he, she, or it can't find the needed tools, the overall effectiveness of the campaign will suffer.
  • Cost. This is another major area of consideration, though the true value comes from comparing the return you get for the cost. Overall, Facebook is highly competitive with Google when it comes to price, in part because Google commands a much larger buying audience, and demand has driven up its prices over the years.
  • Analytics and measurement. You need to be able to track your campaign performance and measure your return on investment (ROI). Without that capacity, you're sunk. Both platforms do an amazing job here.

Industry and Niche Considerations

No matter how much data you try to pull or  how many anecdotes you take into consideration, one big hurdle remains to prevent us from making a final call between these two giants: the fact that every business client is different. Every business is a different size, serves a different demographic, and operates in a different industry.

So no two companies are going to require the same solution. Although Facebook is stronger than Google in some areas right now, those facets might not be relevant to certain firms. For example, cost may not be as critical to a major corporation as it would be for a small business owner, and user data might be more important to a business that has highly specific demographics.

A Look at the Real Estate Industry

To illustrate these principles, consider the real estate industry and why Facebook has become undeniably more valuable as an advertising tool there:

Independent agents vs. major players. First, most real estate operations consist of independent agents trying to run their own business or operate on behalf of a larger agency on a franchise model. That means they have a huge need for greater visibility, but limited resources, time, and familiarity with advertising tactics. To make matters worse, major real estate players like Trulia and Zillow have massive advertising budgets, and have driven up ad prices on Google to be too expensive for independent agents to use them. This is why third-party apps like Real Geeks' Facebook marketing tool have been developed. Even though resources are tight and Google is ridiculously expensive, Facebook still offers a viable edge. With this tool, realtors can connect directly to their existing website, and automatically create Facebook ads and campaigns based on the information they've already listed. Plus, they can follow up after the campaign to measure the results of their effort, making the calculation of ROI as easy as pie.

Changing information. Realtors also have to deal with constantly shifting conditions. Homes on the market are always coming and going, and agents' advertising strategies need to reflect this. Accordingly, realtors require a platform that allows for quick and convenient campaign alterations, and Facebook makes those easy.

High need for demographic targeting. Realtors also have a much higher need for specific demographic targeting than most other industries. Why? Because there are so many specific indexes for what kind of person qualifies as an "ideal" buyer. According to Jeff Manson, owner/broker of  American Dream Realty, "Everything in real estate comes down to the right fit. You need to find the perfect people for the perfect property, and no two people will have the same needs." Not only do realtors need to consider the geographic location of prospective buyers, they also need to consider their prospects' ages, family, education, and income levels. Google can provide approximations of this data with the types of keywords the users might enter during a search, but Facebook is more likely to have the precise details.

Ultimately, you need to go with the platform that can help you  achieve the highest ROI. The potential return you get with each platform and the amount of effort each will require of you depends on the nature of your business and the type of campaigns you tend to run.

Both platforms are exceptional in terms of the functionality and flexibility, but Facebook is currently on a fast-growing trajectory that's unlikely to stop soon. You'd best keep that in mind as you decide how to spend your advertising dollars this year.

Published on: May 31, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.