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Summary:

Google appears to have stepped up its efforts to develop a coherent social strategy. To paraphrase the Black Eyed Peas, Google is so 2000 and late, trying to get into a business that Facebook lost interest in a couple years ago.

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A few weeks ago, I wrote Pandas and Lobsters: Why Google Cannot Build Social Applications, a post that dissected why Google doesn’t get social. Since then, Google appears to have stepped up its efforts to develop a coherent social strategy. To paraphrase the Black Eyed Peas, Google is so 2000 and late, trying to get into a business that Facebook lost interest in a couple years ago.

Since Google didn’t have the social DNA, it’s taken the strategy used by awkward rich guys everywhere by trying to buy some hotness: Slide and Jambool. If that wasn’t enough, they made expensive investments in Zynga and ngmoco.

In doing so, Google just SuperPoked itself in the eyeballs, giving Facebook more time to expand its ad revenues to roughly twice as much as 2009. Google is playing games while Facebook finds ways to mint money from social advertising. Google’s playing a game of ChaseBook, and, in doing so, is gearing up to fight a Facebook that doesn’t even exist anymore: Interactive brand conversations are the future, not games! Therefore, I feel like it’s time to provide Google with a remedial lesson in social in four easy pieces:

  1. Real social engagement comes from photo-sharing and chat. I thank Fred Wilson for that insight. It’s why FriendFeed was such a fantastic acquisition for Facebook: because they deeply understand that. Google should start by turning Picasa into a social application. If Google really cares about social engagement, copy Flickr. Or better yet, buy it; I’m sure Carol Bartz is still having a fire sale, as she’s been more than willing to give away Search, Zimbra, Hot Jobs, Personals, and so on, for little more than $24 in beads.
  2. What worked two years ago does not work now. Even Slide knows that FunSpace, SuperPoke, and Top Friends are so 2008. So don’t expect the “viral techniques” of the past to work: Slide had 130 million users in 2007, but 27 million users in 2010. In case Google hasn’t noticed, the candles in the Facebook ecosystem have burned themselves out. As for Open Social… who cares in a world of Facebook Connect plus iPhone and Android?
  3. Engaging applications spam their users. Any sufficiently successful “viral” marketing technique contains the seeds of its own destruction, as it crosses the line from engaging to spammy. Google doesn’t have the stomach for such behavior.
  4. Many people are just not into social games. That’s right, half of Facebook users don’t play games, and many users hate games. Plus, the whole gaming ecosystem feels like it’s about to collapse on itself. It’s no wonder that Playdom sold out. For Facebook, games were a means to an end: a way to experiment with the pay-for-application-installs business model long enough to evolve into an advertising unit allowing brands and companies to promote (and pay for “likes” on) their Facebook Pages.

Facebook Pages + Data = Money

Now three different parts of Google’s organization are distracted playing games while Facebook Pages continue to build on their massive lead. The value of Facebook to advertisers isn’t in games; it’s in Facebook Pages and the demographic data that accompanies “Like” buttons. Even Twitter knows that putting “Like” or “Tweet” buttons everywhere is tremendously appealing to brand managers and marketing agencies.

It’s pretty evident that Old Spice’s social media campaign is the future, but that campaign used Facebook and Twitter to interact with consumers, not YouTube. YouTube is good for Looks, not “Likes” or conversations. And you need to pay a lot of money for Likes. I recently had to bid 99 cents per Like! What Google needs is a set of tools to make normal web sites as socially interactive and easy to manage as Facebook Pages.

Google chasing games is the company not being true to itself, and the result will be painful. Google, I implore you to let go of the past month and find something more suited to your culture, your DNA, and your passions.

Here, I’ll give you one off the top of my head: infrastructure that scales. Amazon Web Services are now generating half a billion dollars in revenue a year, in part thanks to social applications. Yet, if you ask any social application developer if he or she would ever use App Engine, all you get is an earful about not having access to the full machine, not having access to a real database, not having their languages of choice, and so on. Google can be itself and let thousands of social applications bloom by fixing these issues. Google, take a lesson from Microsoft: Strength comes from developers, developers, developers, developers.

Remember, today’s scrappy team of ragtag developers is tomorrow’s Zynga. In fact, if Google is smart, it should take a page out of  Facebook’s strategy. At a recent Startup2Startup event, Facebook’s corporate development executive (a presenter) was smart, fascinating, and left technical founders seriously interested in Facebook. Others were unmemorable.

This only corroborates what I’ve heard from others and seen in the kind of companies the company has bought in recent times. Google paid $182 million in cash plus $46 million in retention bonuses for 64 Slide employees. In comparison, Facebook bought all these companies for much less money:

What do these companies have in common? They were all tiny teams of skilled engineers that naturally fit into the existing structure of Facebook: Pages, places, photos, chat, etc. The one exception was FriendFeed, which was worth the price just for getting Bret Taylor, now chief technology officer at Facebook.

If Google truly cares about social, it should honestly ask itself why it’s investing in game companies instead of the kind of companies Facebook acquires.

Google, please listen to me now, or perhaps to Slide’s outgoing VP of business development, who recommended you acquire LinkedIn, Twitter, and Quora (and not games!) to overhaul your social strategy. Games are not conversations!

Adam Rifkin is a veteran enterpreneur and web technologist based in San Francisco Bay Area.

Image via flickr user familymwr

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  1. blah blah blah…yada yada yada, when will these google haters shut up, the huge hullaboo about Android fragmentation still rings in my ears, and now its the No 1 mobile OS. You think Google management has not thought about these issues? Do you even know what they are doing with gaming?

    1. Robert,
      I certainly agree with you about being sick of people bashing Google. In my circle of friends I’m known as the Google card carrying fanboy; however, I have to admit I agree with pretty much every point made in this article. Not because I don’t want them to succeed in their jump to the social media scene, but because I really do want to see them make a product that will rise up above. They do need to take this in and really understand it if they don’t already. Big point being in that social games are not going to get them ahead at all. And they should really buy Flickr and use that to really build up Picasa.

  2. Great post. It’s always interesting to see which big company aquires which small company, and how they integrate them into their offerings. I’m still eagerly waiting to see what Apple is going to do with iLike (though they just announced a Sept 1st event, possibly announcing their plans?).

    Katie
    Community Manager | Radian6
    @misskatiemo

  3. Jake Walker › Why Google Has No Game Wednesday, August 25, 2010

    [...] Why Google Has No Game – interesting article on GigaOm by Adam Rifkin.  Completely agree about this: Real social engagement comes from photo-sharing and chat. [...]

  4. Google knows these things already!
    Sure they’re playing catch-up in the social world but they have some fundamental pieces to play with and the rest of those “conversational” systems are being built as we speak (if they haven’t finished them already)…

    The games stuff is simply a side play, Google grabbed a few social game devs to work on some silly social games because the core Google social teams are busy working on those more important “conversational” pieces. Plus with Google’s cash why not buy up some social games to throw in the mix – in the end some people do play those silly games.

    I’m excited to see what Google brings to the social table not because of the recent game company acquisitions but instead because Google has the interest and components to put together a compelling social world, integrated into/with GMail, Buzz, Picasa, Calendar, Profiles, Bookmarks, etc.

    Plus I’m hoping Google will make their social world in an Open way using protocols such as OpenID, OAuth, OStatus, OpenSocial, etc etc. (facebook = anti-open).

    I just think Google probably has a couple people that may have thought about these things already is all.

  5. You lost me for any seriousness with your number 1 point above: “Real social engagement comes from photo-sharing and chat”.

    Is this for real?

    1. Seems real to me. just like real social interaction. Which generally consists of chatting and sharing experiences.

  6. Google is champion of the money game.

  7. The problem is that if Facebook shut down today it would not impact on my life in any tangible way. However, if Google shut down, I’d be in deep trouble!

    Google docs- all my files are there now
    Gmail- been using it for years, calendar and contacts are also tied to it
    Chrome browser – absolutely flies
    I have an iphone contract but I think Android is on the same level and it would be an acceptable switch
    Google Search
    Web optimiser! Analytics!

    Is it possible that Google strategy has simply been on core value to users?

  8. Which would have the most impact on your life if it went away tomorrow? Google or Facebook?

    1. Facebook. I already have email addresses with at least 4 other companies, including the company I work for and I could easily share my new email address with all of my friends and family via facebook. If facebook went down I’d lose the primary way that at least half of my daily personal interactions occur. I have no personal ties to Google.

  9. clueful post. social-engagement is key – perhaps google focuses too much on the ‘platform’ vs. the behavior on top of such platforms. picasa is clunkily social at best – too much friction for sharing. buzz doesnt even count and i cant think of anything else they have which encourages social/sharing behaviors. i agree they have no game – they are too focused on building the best court.

  10. i Just only want to says what happed to the freaking awesome “SocialStream Project”

    where is “SocialStream” Google’s sponsored project at the Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute,

    http://www.hcii.cmu.edu/M-HCI/2006/SocialstreamProject/index.php

    SocialStream’s UI is much Kooler then any other social network

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