July 28, 2008

Facebook Faces Global Imitators Site Faces Off With Competitors in Local Languages

By Paul Sonne

In its bid to go global, Facebook is facing off against itself.

Clones of the wunderkind social-networking Web site - some of which resemble Facebook right down to color, font and layout - have popped up in local languages around the world. These competitor sites offer identical core services, letting users post pictures, make groups and choose their friends.

All are complicating Facebook Inc.'s global campaign, which began in February and has since rolled out 18 foreign-language editions, including Norwegian and Czech, with plans for 54 more.

Facebook's international challenges illustrate just some of the ways global expansion can bedevil major U.S. Web companies as they seek swarms of users and advertising dollars in new markets.

Facebook's particular problem is winning over people who are already hooked on local-language sites pitching similar services with a similar look.

In Russia, for example, where Facebook launched last month, the entrenched social-networking engine online is Vkontakte, a Russian- language Facebook clone that boasts more than 14 million users.

Facebook officials predict they will eventually triumph, partly because they can spend more resources on improving their site than upstarts can. Facebook also has a strong network of outside programmers who write Web applications for the site, and the company said last week it would extend its translation tools to those developers, to make Facebook even more compelling for overseas markets.

Plus, its users can connect with friends from other countries, something local sites can't offer.

"They can gain traction in individual countries but they are not going to be able to compete on a global scale," said Facebook spokeswoman Jaime Schopflin.

But social-networking sites mirror real life, and many Russians dread moving to a neighborhood where they have no friends.

"All of my Russian friends are on Vkontakte," said Moscow resident Galina Ryazanova, 21, a recent college graduate who uses both Web sites. "I don't think they'll switch to Facebook because everyone is already established on Vkontakte."

Ryazanova visits Facebook about once a month to keep up with her non-Russian friends, she said, but uses Vkontakte three or four times a week.

Facebook dominates the social-networking market in many English- language countries and is growing quickly elsewhere. It is the most popular social-networking site in Britain and one of the top three in France, tracking company comScore reported.

But in countries like Germany and Russia, Facebook seems to be gaining ground more slowly.

Originally published by Paul Sonne, Associated Press.

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