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Summary:

Google will do just about anything to get social. Like spend $200 million on Slide, a head-scratcher of a deal that shows Google not only has no idea what to do about social, it actually lacks the imagination to even think of anything worthwhile.

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It was a nearly a decade and a half ago that I fell in love with America’s pastime, baseball. I loved the sound of the ball hitting the bat. I loved the juxtaposition of green grass and red clay on the baseball diamond. While it wasn’t quite like the cricket I grew up playing in the streets of Delhi, it was something that evoked similar emotions.

I longed to play baseball and wanted so badly to learn how to hit and pitch. Then I joined Red Herring magazine. Like many San Francisco publications of the past, the magazine employed a lively and colorful cast of characters. We played against other magazines, like Wired, and advertising agencies. Despite my lack of experience, I talked my way onto the Herring softball team.

When it came time to bat, I suddenly realized that I was holding the baseball bat as if I was playing cricket. When the pitch came to me, I took a step forward and drove it to right field, much as I was driving a ball through the covers on a cricket field. No matter what I did, I couldn’t hit the ball hard enough to drive in a run. This went on for a few games. I just didn’t have the baseball swing. Cricket was so ingrained in my thinking and how I related to a bat and ball that it may as well have been encoded in my DNA.

Ain’t Got That Swing

I love baseball and will always await the first day of spring training with the ardor of a lover coming home after an exile. But I will never be a baseball player. It’s just not in my make-up. My misery over my failed baseball career is no different than Google’s. The world’s largest search engine covets a key to the magical kingdom called the social web. It would do anything to become part of that exclusive club that, for now, is the domain of Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook and to some extent, Twitter.

Google will do just about anything to get social, like spend a rumored $182 million on San Francisco-based Slide, a head-scratcher of a deal. Some rumors say the price was as high as $228 million. Now, I’m happy for Max Levchin and his investors, but frankly, the deal shows that Google not only has no idea what to do about social, but actually lacks the imagination to even think of anything worthwhile on its own. If Google is really trying to go social and get on the social gaming bandwagon, this deal is comparable to buying a Kia and hoping it can help you race past a Mercedes AMG 65 on the Autobahn.

On Quora, a social Q&A services, someone asks, “Why did Slide and RockYou miss/avoid the social gaming trend that Zynga and Playfish capitalized upon?“. The answers are quite telling, but the response from Josh Elman (formerly of Facebook) stands out:

I think that Zynga and Playfish both started with gaming as their sole focus. They weren’t trying to “pick the trend,” they just believed that you could combine casual games with the new distribution models of social networks and create new businesses. Both of them discovered the extraordinary opportunities of monetization after a lot of hard work and failures. I think one of the challenges of Slide and RockYou during those periods was they probably did try harder to “pick the trend” and optimize it rather than just build towards something deeper and more sustainable.

Ironically, what Google is doing is exactly the same — pick a trend and optimize for it.

By the Engineers, for the Engineers

This only amplifies what I felt earlier this morning. Having failed to hire a head of social, Google decided to put its man for all seasons, Vic Gundotra, in charge of social. Having seen Vic at work (first at Microsoft and later at Google), I just wonder if he is the right guy for the gig. He’s a smart and analytical product manager — his work on Google Mobile only shows that — but social needs more than the ability to add games, features and music.

Social is more than just features. I’ve been saying for a while that in order to understand social and win over the social web, companies need to understand people. I’m not sure Google is capable of understanding people on that level, and that’s the reason why the company strikes out whenever it tries. There are rumors Google co-founder Sergey Brin championed the acquisition of Slide. He also championed Google Wave (which is shutting down) and the poorly conceived Google Buzz.

Google, thanks to two brilliant engineer-founders, has become a great company seemingly able to solve the world’s most complicated engineering problems. That ability made it turn search into the great money machine that it is. It knows how to tweak machines and make them do unfathomable things. But what it can’t do is internalize empathy. It doesn’t know feelings. It doesn’t comprehend that relationships are more than a mere algorithm. You can see this in its many offerings; they’re efficient, but devoid of emotion, and emotions are what drive interaction. A smile begets a smile, a frown a frown and a conversation a conversation. That’s true in the real world, and it’s true on the web.

IBM, Microsoft & Google

Adam Rifkin outlined this in a brilliant post (summarized here), which, unfortunately, is not accessible online. His argument, and I wholeheartedly agree, is that you are who you are and that’s the way it is. Google can’t change, just as I couldn’t change my batting stance. The whole company is built around “goal-oriented behavior,” which essentially means “come to Google, do your search and move onto the next thing.” That’s its fate and also its destiny. If the company doesn’t recognize it, then it’s going to go down the road IBM took in the 1990s and Microsoft is currently walking along, an argument poignantly made by Dave Winer in this lesson in technology history.

The way I see it, Google is facing pressure from two different directions. On one side, the social web is moving toward a future where serendipity replaces search. Facebook is on this side. On the other side, with mobile apps, Apple has helped popularize a new goal-oriented, task-specific paradigm that essentially starts to obviate the need for search. These two behavior changes are clear and present danger to Google, as I pointed out last year in a GigaOM research report (subscription required.)

Buying Slide, investing in Zynga or launching Google Me are great ideas in theory, just as is the idea of me playing baseball!

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  1. I could teach you baseball, but I don’t know if I could teach Google social…

  2. Om, you’ve nailed it. I’ve expressed the same feelings about Google but you’re a writer & story teller and I’m not :-)

    Your point in social about lacking emotion/empathy is so true. They can’t compete in any arena that requires it. They also can’t compete where it takes a right brain, anything in the liberal arts area (interfaces, design, etc) – This was obvious to me the minute they analyzed browser blues and spent over a year studying left column navigation. And, they can’t hire the deficiencies away. The deficiency is in the corporate DNA, starts at the top and goes to the bottom.

    Of course I don’t expect them to realize this but Facebook and Apple will always beat them. And all this will dilute/marginalize them in advertising (especially mobile) as well. One analyst downgraded them today and feels their glory days are over. I wouldn’t be surprised.

  3. Thought provoking post – Thanks

    The argument that since you have been not able to spot a new social trend you should not even attempt to latch on to something another person is successful at is false. Practice makes a man perfect. Only if you keep on experimenting with things, be it copy or me-too’s or something new , you will land on something that works.

    Apple , ryan air , Microsoft all took ideas from someother place and experimented to ultimately land on something successful.

    1. Maybe if it’s a static, spec type of thing – These are all moving targets being steered by people that already get it and have the mental requirements. Google may hit on something completely new/novel but they certainly haven’t shown that ability since their original search theory.

    2. Om – In the baseball cricket case – I would argue that you did not try hard enough to learn baseball.

      Further, if you mastered baseball also- I am sure you would have brought some tricks to the baseball world based on your learning’s in the cricket world

      1. Niraj

        You are being presumptuous to assume that I didn’t hard enough. I did and well when things don’t work out you gotta move on. :-)

      2. Rajan Sachdeva Niraj Sunday, August 8, 2010

        Niraj

        You are being presumptuous to assume that I didn’t hard enough. I did and well when things don’t work out you gotta move on. :-)

        SatyaVachan! (for OM comment)

  4. I agree with neeraj…

    Small companies can take certain risk and try out various things and one in 1000 clicks…big companies have to leverage their market position by grabbing those successful companies….I am glad they are buying successful companies rather than inventing on their own….google would have not build android with out equipping it…and android could have not grown so big without google leverage it’s market musle…

    What google could do to innovate is incubate/fund some successful smaller companies….to get it’s presence….rope the talent pool of some smaller innovative companies…

    Facebook is just doing that in more crude way by buying successful small companies to build as core team….that is a smart move by them which google should leverage it’s position….

    apple wouldn’t be unstoppable if google has not entered android…

    Appengine is very innovative platform…where google has some core strengths….

    Btw, OM since you are cricket fan try out cricwaves.com for live cricket with audio bytes…it is built on google app engine….and it scales really well…at times 500 requests/sec….

  5. Finally a good, neutral post for Google from a Valley reporter. I am a Valley guy but have always felt that idiots at Techchurnch like blogs have taken tech journalism to lowest level. I can relate to cricket and baseball analogy. It feels the same and you think you can do it but it is not…

  6. Who’re the people running Facebook? I don’t buy it, the entire silicon valley is run by geeks. Feeding virtual cows would sound pathetically geeky and socially inept 10 years ago, now huge numbers of idiots are doing it. Computer geeks don’t understand human? they’re practically shaping your social life these days.

      1. +2
        Stopped visiting Techcrunch months ago.

    1. +1. Agree.

      FB is a piece of junk. Just a webpage hosting company being hyped and marketed as some sort of new thing. Most silicon valley VC backed companies do nothing but hype and market.

      VC backed AD supported non-sensical bogus DOT COM companies are back in vogue. FB, Twit, Linkedin,…… We never learned our lesson.

      Appeal to LP’s: Take your money back from VC’s and run!!! This bubble is about to burst all over again.

  7. IMO, Google should not look at games as the secret sauce for its social networking venture. Google is supposed to be the expert at organizing information and making it accessible in useful ways. Google should focus its efforts in helping its users organize their personal information and share it with others at varying levels of granularity.

    I don’t like to plug in my website in these comments, but in this case I think it is relevant. I described a fictitious Google product called Lifeline: http://tech.desiblogs.net/2009/04/notes-from-future-introducing-google.html . I believe that this product could easily become Google’s social networking platform.

  8. While I agree with your point that Google’s products are more about getting specific tasks done than hanging out and having fun online, I fail to see how empathy or the lack thereof is the problem. After all, Facebook isn’t your doctor or priest, it’s just a website. Facebook succeeds as a social networking site because it provides an integrated environment for services that are essential for people’s social interaction: status update, sharing photos/videos, event organization, groups, etc. There is nothing inherently “empathetic” about any of these services; they just suit the job (i.e. social interaction) better than services from other companies. Case in point: okcupid.com (probably the best dating site in terms of UI and functionality) is run by a group of Harvard applied MATHEMATICIANS! It doesn’t matter if these people might not be the best lady’s men in the world; they just have to provide a solid product that has the necessary functionalities (e.g. IM, messaging, profile filtering, matching) with a good UI. It seems that Google’s problem is more with product design and management than with the vague notion of “empathy”.

    1. Except Google is not that great at UI either :). Sure, you might like a few of their products for their “simplicity” but the kind of simplicity they are thinking doesn’t always equal great UI.

      Google lacks the culture of UI/design, and their idea of simplicity probably came from the fact that they didn’t know to design any better, either.

      Coders are usually different from designers – different as in coders “usually” can’t design, and “designers” can’t code. I believe Google has created, from the beginning, a culture of coders, and this culture has kept feeding itself by allowing even more coders inside, and keeping the “designer types” ((and the ones with more empathy as Om says) outside(you do know about Google’s interviewing system, right?).

      In fact, a few years ago, a good designer they hired, left blaming this type of culture. You can read about it here:

      http://news.cnet.com/google-designer-leaves-blaming-data-centrism/

      1. Completely agree. This is the same reason Netscape (not the browser war) lost while Yahoo gained as content site in 90s. And Google could be next to lose the search race or apps if they continue with simplicity mantra which works great with geeks and coders. Never under estimate the power of UI in world of consumers. Mint.com is just one of the example how a rich UI driven we base software can achieve in a short time while quicken loses the race of personal financial management tool race. (Quicken ended the game with buying Mint.com)

  9. Twitter only benefits few famous people with many followers (like you). Facebook is a piece of cake and highly over valued, it does very little revenue and no profit.

    That doesn’t mean there is no future in social networks. Twitte and facebook just aren’t it.

    Google needs to work on making the right type of social service. They are bringing in Features of Wave and Buzz into Google Me, simplifying the UI and optimizing the usability of all the features, then opening the protocol, like open social but better. Google doesn’t expect many users for all their products. Nexus One, Wave, Buzz didn’t have many users, but they are huge successes in terms of technology unleashings onto the market, NExus One spurred a huge growth in Android ecosystem projecting it on top of all smart phone sales in the USA and soon worldwide, Wave and Buzz are hugely acclaimed among developers demonstrations of open technologies that are to be part of the finalized open social networking platform.

  10. Om,
    what a great way to say what a lot of your readers feel about google’s attempts.

    “But what it can’t do is internalize empathy”.

    now, a lot of very smart people still work at google and i hope enough of them are still hungry enough to innovate beyond Chasing Social.
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118842/

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