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Summary:

Google has a lock on the web habits of millions of users, but has failed to translate that into anything approaching a social network. Why does being social elude the web giant? Writer Adam Rifkin says it is because Google caters to pandas instead of lobsters.

Google has a lock on the web habits of hundreds of millions of users, but it has so far failed to translate that dominance into anything approaching a social network or community, despite its many attempts: Buzz had a number of issues right out of the gate and has yet to get much traction, Wave appears to have sunk without a trace, and Orkut is popular in Brazil and parts of Europe but virtually a non-entity elsewhere. Google is now reportedly working on a Facebook-style network, but no one seems to be giving it great odds. So why does being social continue to elude the web giant? Adam Rifkin, former co-founder of Renkoo and a former staffer with KnowNow and CommerceNet, says it is because Google caters to pandas instead of lobsters.

By pandas, Rifkin (who clearly identifies with the giant bears) means web users who simply want to search for something and then move on — in other words, those who want to find a specific piece of information and make use of it, rather than hang around chatting or socializing with others. This is what psychologists call “goal-oriented behavior,” and it is a completely different type of activity from what most people engage in on social-networking sites like Twitter or Facebook.

The kind of application that Google knows how to make well are the kind that embody the “eats, shoots, and leaves” model of Internet behavior. Pandas spend every waking hour foraging — aka searching — and consuming. The most successful Google applications serve such a utilitarian mandate, too: they encourage users to search for something, consume, and move onto the next thing. Get in, do your business, get out… where Google does not excel is in making applications that are by their nature for lingering and luxuriating — the so-called social applications.

Rifkin contrasts this with Facebook, which is what he calls “a lobster trap,” or a place where the activity of friends — in posting photos or playing games or engaging in other social behavior — is constantly pulling users back in and convincing them to spend more time there.

“Every time a friend shares a status, a link, a like, a comment or a photo, Facebook has more bait to lure me back,” he writes. Rifkin also correctly notes that sites such as Quora (the question and answer site) and services such as Foursquare and Twitter are successful in ways that Google is not because they offer real-time social interaction and repeated incentives to return and spend more time.

I think Rifkin makes a good point — Google is good at software that focuses on specific tasks, but doesn’t do much to convince users to stick around or interact with each other, and that is increasingly important. Call it a portal vs. a utility approach. What Google needs to do, obviously, is think a bit more about how to appeal to lobsters, and less about the pandas and their goal-oriented behavior. But can it do this? The company’s culture seems motivated almost entirely by an engineering ethos, according to many observers as well as former employees: in other words, see a problem and solve it. Even its recent socially-oriented hires, such as open-web advocate Chris Messina, seem aimed primarily at the technical side of things, such as the OpenSocial and ActivityStreams standards discussions. But social networking doesn’t involve a problem with a specific solution — it’s simply a human activity that people enjoy, for a variety of reasons.

Google is clearly looking for ways to attack this defect in its makeup: it is thinking hard about how social networks function, if a recent presentation by a Google staffer is anything to go by, and it is attempting to hire a “head of social” to try and coordinate its efforts. There have also been reports that it is working on a gaming platform with Zynga as a way of helping it build a social graph. But while Google may own search and advertising, it is still a babe in the woods when it comes to understanding how human beings relate to each other outside of a specific suite of tools. And corporate culture and DNA are difficult to change.

The reality is that the web titan needs to figure out the social element of the web quickly, or it will start to lose ground to Facebook and its ilk — and it’s not just about playing in the same pool as Facebook, it’s about the impact that social networking is having on both search and advertising, the two pillars of Google’s empire. If people are spending more time on social networks, then advertisers will want to be do likewise, and that is a real threat to Google’s future, as Om has pointed out in a GigaOM research report (subscription required). Time to figure out how to appeal to those lobsters, and pronto.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):
Social Advertising Models Go Back to the Future

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Chi King and tm-tm

  1. Brian S Hall Tuesday, July 13, 2010

    2nd dumbest thing I’ve read today (the pandas post, not your review of it).

    1. I didn’t think it was dumb at all, Brian (obviously, or I wouldn’t have written about it). I thought Adam made some good points about Google in a colorful way. And what was number 1?

      1. To each his own.
        My #1 for today was the guy at Business Insider who said the whole iPhone 4 antenna thing would blow over soon.

  2. I think “lemming” is a more accurate term than “lobster” in this context.

  3. Zacqary Adam Green Tuesday, July 13, 2010

    So, Google’s very good at helping people when they need to, er, be pandas. That’s a niche filled. What motivation do they have for being good at social, other than the fact that it’s trendy and Silicon Valley bloggers like talking about it so much?

    1. Thanks for the comment — I tried to make the point that it’s not just that social networks are fun or time-consuming, it’s that they are drawing the attention of advertisers, and that’s something Google should be concerned about.

    2. if web information & Content can be sifted on a graph-curated basis in a “better” way vs. link-curated like google does/did, there are a ton of reasons to worry about getting ‘social’ right for big G.

  4. Just for the fun of it, since Google is so easy:

    Diagnostic Features:

    Obsessive-Compulsive Personality[Data in Google's case] Disorder is a condition characterized by a chronic preoccupation with rules, orderliness, and control. This disorder is only diagnosed when these behaviors become persistent and disabling. The individual with this disorder often becomes upset when control is lost[China]. The individual then either emotionally withdraws from these situations, or becomes very angry. The individual usually expresses affection in a highly controlled[access Journalism] or stilted fashion and may be very uncomfortable in the presence of others who are emotionally expressive. The person often has difficulty expressing tender feelings, and rarely pays compliments.

    [] my comments, no Panda/Lobster (DID Dissociative Identity Disorder) needed.

  5. G and FB are both social utilities. G is better because it socially connects businesses with consumers. G likes hanging out where the most money is. When inclined they can buy what they socially don’t have. Nothing keeps them up at night. The baby panda is hybernating all the way to the bank. (hybernation)

  6. I’m not sure that I entirely agree with the Panda analogy. Gmail and Google Reader, for instance, are platforms that many folks live out of.

    Genius’ throughout history have written eloquently on social interaction, so the basics at least are rather accessible. How the future of social interaction changes with the expanding role that the web plays in all of our lives, however, continues to present fascinating challenges and opportunities. Fundamentally, I think that it can be approached as a solvable problem. Whether or not Google addresses the key issues in a compelling manner is another thing.

    Recent activity could suggest that they are looking at the, so far unseen, bigger picture.

  7. Slide, Vic Gundotra & The Un-Social Reality of Google Wednesday, August 4, 2010

    [...] Rifkin outlined this in a brilliant post (summarized here), which, unfortunately, is not accessible online. His argument, and I wholeheartedly agree, is that [...]

  8. Memo to Eric Schmidt: Being Social is Not a Widget: Tech News « Sunday, September 19, 2010

    [...] is search, in which the biggest measure of success is how quickly you send people away. It’s the difference between pandas and lobsters, as Adam Rifkin described it earlier this year, and it is Google’s Achilles [...]

  9. Search Ads Are a Hammer, But Not Everything is a Nail: Tech News « Thursday, October 28, 2010

    [...] made up their mind to buy something and are looking for where they can go to do so — but it doesn’t do as well with people who are just looking to talk or network with others. To the extent that your potential customers are closer to the networking [...]

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