Social Google: Is Facebook next?

PCR examines rumours that Google will launch a Facebook competitor
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PCR examines rumours that Google will launch a Facebook competitor

14 years after two bright young Stanford PhD students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, began the research project which would become the Google search engine, questions are now being asked about whether Google has what it takes to successfully adapt to the social networking revolution.

The original big idea so long ago was a technical solution to enable a search engine to deliver better results than merely counting instances of search terms. Those that began using Google in those early days, the ultra-minimalist uncluttered web design was at least as much of a draw as the better quality of search results. 

The underlying philosophy behind the two approaches, technology and user relevance, would continue to guide the strategy of the company to heady heights of the modern day Internet giant. Today Google employs over 20,000 staff and has a market capitalisation of over US$150 billion dollars. However in recent years there have been a number of other rising giants in the Internet world as well as existing companies such as Microsoft investing heavily to compete with the upstarts.

The current age of the Internet is something analysts like to call Web 2.0. Beyond the “one way” publishing of Web 1.0, towards a “netizen” focused sharing of content categorised by the peer-to-peer file sharing, user content uploading like YouTube and of course the entire social networking movement such as Twitter and Facebook. 

This has been fertile ground for Google in applying the twin company strategies of technology and user-focused relevance but perhaps the greatest surprise relating to Google’s success is that it was achieved purely through advertising, by placing relevant and unobtrusive adverts within the ever expanding portfolio of services Google would offer. 

Analysts have for some time spoken about the need for Google to find additional revenue streams, to charge directly for services but such measures are still fleeting at best such as the commercial Google Apps service which provides a suite of Google services such as Gmail, Calendar and the online applications for organisations to use. Ultimately, however, its Google’s adverts that pay, to the tune of $6.5 billion dollars of profile in 2009. 

Here lies Google’s challenge; the company is dependent on the millions of people that choose to use the various Google services, whether its search, Gmail, YouTube or Picasa. Therefore its little wonder the firm has sought out fresh pastures such as the fast growing smartphone and Internet tablet markets. This has increasingly resulted in a strengthening rivalry with Apple. Previously the companies viewed each other in less acrimonious terms, sharing board members even, until such time as Google signalled that there was no such thing as safe turf. 

Facebook having captured an astonishing 400 million users worldwide must look like an even more tempting target. Facebook still has a very long way to go before its own advertising challenges Google, to put it in perspective the company is estimated to have total revenue of US$800 million in 2009 compared with Google’s US$23.6 billion revenue, but you can be sure Google views those 400 million users hungrily. 

Further, Facebook’s market dominant leaves potential threats on the horizon. Should Facebook succeed in becoming a search originator then Google’s future might look a little less gold plated. It’s also widely believed that social networking has a much greater capacity to host advertising than other web services. There are more pages,people stay on them for longer and vitally there’s more information to trigger those all-important context-sensitive adverts which made Google the company it is today.

With one exception we’ll discuss later, what Google has not done is attempt to go toe to toe with Facebook. However if we take a quick tour through some of the recent experimental features we might gain fresh insight into what Google has in mind:

• Google Profile: A social networking-like “about” page for the user, featuring any information you might like to share, images, and links to other connected web sites like Google’s Blogger service and so on.

• Google Wave: A truly new and innovative approach to email which might best be described as a sort of real-time forum intended as a potential open standard replacement for email.

• Google Buzz: A location aware Twitter-like social networking chat system which has been rolled out to the 187 million Gmail users. Vitally it also links in social networking elements such as “like”, “resharing” and importing Twitter and Google Reader feeds and more.

Also if there’s any doubt that Google is taking social networking seriously, one only has to look at some of the high profile staff recruited in the last year. Joseph Smarr, former Plaxo CTO, is said to be presently leading “social web” at Google. Chris Messina, open web advocate and OpenID proponent, is now evangelising open standards at Google. Brad Fitzpatrick, creator of LiveJournal, is now on Google’s technical staff. Don Doge, formerly of Microsoft’s Emerging Business Team, now helps developers make applications for Google platforms.

Telling, only last month the company was reported to have engaged the services of an executive recruiter to find a new “Head of Social” for Google. Scant weeks later Digg co-founder Kevin Rose ignited a storm of speculation by twittering on Monday that a “very credible source” had indicated that Google intended to launch a “Google Me” social networking site very soon. 

In the aftermath of which, many have invoked examples of Google’s limited success with social networking (such as Wave and Buzz) as impediments to becoming a real Facebook competitor. Yet discussion of the downfall of these pioneering services seems premature with reports surfacing from Silicon Valley watchers that Google Buzz in particular is seen as being an important strategy for the Mountain View-based company. 

Google Buzz kicked off to a rocky start where Google was a little too aggressive in granting all Gmail users access to Buzz with ill considered privacy controls resulting in a storm of controversy and a level of criticism for which the company has rarely been exposed. Privacy concerns have been a running theme of social networking with Facebook having recently come under considerable fire. To be realistic, however, such concerns have not impacted Facebook’s popularity significantly.

Rolled out to all 187 million Gmail users, Buzz is very social networking-like. The service incorporates “like” and “reshare” functionality and is already considerably tied in to external social networking systems such as Twitter and Blogger. Most tellingly of all, new features and improvements are showing up on a near weekly basis which gives some weight to the rumours of the size of the team working on Buzz. 

Then there’s Android, the open source smartphone operating system Google developed which has by any measure achieved a staggering level of success in a short period of time. The market has proven ripe for a more open competitor to Apple’s iPhone walled-garden and the process Google advocates open standards while positioning itself with a high degree of integration of its own services such as Gmail, Google Maps/Latitude, Calendar, Contacts and, yes, Google Buzz.

Buzz on Android smartphones takes on an additional guise. Location aware Buzz posts can be viewed as little bubbles in Google Maps, live comments can be seen for nearby Buzzers and already the feature of shared images and comments about companies are springing up in cities all around the world. Buzz seems like a practical demonstration of something larger as Google begins to join up the various mobile and web services.

If there’s a concern it is that while Google has the head to understand social networking, we might wonder if it has the heart. Truly great social networking is not just dominated by a killer feature list but rather by who is there and what fun and interesting mechanisms are there to interact with. Facebook’s ‘sticky applications’ remain an important draw, despite the recent tightening on Facebook apps communication.

Those frivolous applications to compare your friends to vegetables or endless activity posts of obtaining a goat for your friends farm and so on are all at the heart of a more-than-chat, more-than-tech, social networking movement. This is what Google will need to understand if it wants to step out from under the umbrella of the techy male early adopter and target the true mass market of the Internet where 400 million people have already voted for Facebook.

Google has one ace in the hole which the Internet discourse to date has tended to downplay. The immensely successful social networking site called Orkut, the site of choice of the entire developing nations of Brazil and India. English-web ethnocentrism has so far downplayed the relevance of Orkut but the fact is that Orkut has 100 million users and growing. Granted that’s a quarter of Facebook but nevertheless a rare asset which shows that Google isn’t starting from scratch.

Google’s innovation continues at a dizzying pace and while not all of it looks destined to be successful, the company’s competitors continue to be mindful of Google dashing into their turf by offering that peculiar combination of technology and relevance. Social networking is going to need a little more, however, that indefinable flavour of heart and soul. 

It may be that the flare for social network never arrives and that the company is destined to sit in that early-adopter geek-out heaven of technical cool. We would argue that’s just fine, the Internet is big enough for more than one player with their own unique style.

The most important thing we can take away from Google’s social activities to this point is that it leaves us with one inevitable conclusion. It’s not a question of whether Google will launch a genuine social networking site and by extension competitor to Facebook, but rather a question of when.