Google CEO Eric Schmidt made some comments last week about the company’s plans to get more social, and they showed how little the web giant understands what it is up against. Schmidt said the company intends to “add a social component” to its existing products.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt made some comments last week about the company’s plans to get more social, and more than anything else they showed how little the web giant really understands what it is up against. During a brief discussion with reporters following the company’s Zeitgeist conference, Schmidt said that Google wasn’t planning to launch a major standalone social venture, but instead intended to “add a social component” to its existing products and services. When I read those remarks, an alarm bell went off in my head.

Why? Because to truly be successful, social media or social networking — which Google has apparently come to realize is an important feature of the web as it exists today, and a competitive threat as well (sub req’d) — can’t just be bolted onto what you are already doing. It’s not a software upgrade or a hardware fix. Schmidt makes adding social features sound like something Google can accomplish by tweaking an algorithm here and there, or adding a new widget (possibly even a Facebook plugin). But he is wrong.

Adding “a social component” to an existing service is exactly what Google Buzz was supposed to do with Gmail. It stumbled out of the gate for a number of reasons, including the fact that it auto-added all your mail contacts as friends without telling you, and has been more or less limping along ever since. Google’s OpenSocial and Google Friend Connect were also supposed to add a social layer to existing services — not to mention Google Wave (which has been shut down) and Orkut. They have all fizzled, while every day Facebook gets larger and more powerful.

As Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures described in a recent post, what matters in terms of social services and features is catering to a user’s specific intent — something Twitter does very well. Amorphous social “layers” that aggregate activity from elsewhere (like Friendfeed) don’t have anywhere near that kind of success. And the only intent that Google understands 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 heel.

Has Facebook added a social layer to its existing business? No. Being a social network *is* its business. The company was designed from the ground up to be a social network and to have social features — they weren’t bolted on after the fact. Being social is in its DNA, which is why it has been succesful. Facebook is taking a vast social enterprise and adding monetization features, while Google is trying to take a vast business built on something else and somehow make it social. As Om and others have noted, social just isn’t something the company understands very well, period. Too many engineers? Who knows.

Vic Gundotra and Max Levchin of Slide (which Google acquired) are supposed to be helping with that, and I wish them the best of luck: trying to splice the company’s DNA is going to be a Herculean task, along the lines of teaching a robot how to be funny, or explaining to a computer why human beings drink too much and then fall down. Above all else, Gundotra and Levchin should tell their CEO that being social involves a heck of a lot more than “adding a social component” to existing services. Google has to somehow figure out how to actually become social, not just to pretend that it is.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): Why Google Should Fear the Social Web

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Steve Jurvetson

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  1. Insightful article. Google has indeed failed to understand social networks. pip.io is a good role model along with Twitter & Facebook

  2. Jeffrey McManus Sunday, September 19, 2010

    Schmidt is cracked, but not for the reasons you put forth. There are countless examples of “successful” products that were built as widgets or features of some other platform. Are you seriously positing that Zynga isn’t “successful”?

    1. I wouldn’t describe Zynga as a widget, Jeffrey — but in any case, it is built on top of a platform that is fundamentally social, whereas Google’s is not, and I think that makes all the difference.

      1. Your assertion was that “social can’t just be bolted onto what you are already doing”. But clearly this happens all the time. It sounds like you’re trying to make a generalization here. Zynga/Facebook disproves this. What is the difference between what you refer to as a “widget” and a Facebook app anyway?

  3. What would you have them do then? Completely ignore social, since it’s not there core business? They have to at least keep their toes in there.

    1. Not sure how that ‘their’ turned into ‘there’

    2. Not at all, Craig — I think they need to really do it, not just tweak a few settings here and there.

  4. It’s Sunday, mid-day, and my brain is exhausted from watching a surfeit of proper football from England, Spain, Italy and Germany. So, I shan’t attempt detail or even an explanation.

    You don’t know what you’re talking about.

    Sorry to be abrupt.

    1. Feel free to return and elaborate when you have more time :-)

  5. Memo to clueless bloggers : Get a clue,

    No time to elaborate.

  6. Given what we’ve seen from senior user experience researchers at Google on social media, you’re still seriously suggesting that they don’t get it?

    1. I’ve seen one presentation from one researcher with some interesting thoughts about social — that doesn’t fill me with confidence about the ability of the entire organization to do what is necessary.

      1. Okay, it is true that inferring from even a stellar analysis of social media from a single researcher doesn’t exactly instill confidence at the organizational level. However, I just don’t buy the alternative message either, especially when it is mixed (e.g., can’t succeed at “social” by adding a component, unless it is Ping) and frankly, when the implicit underlying message not infrequently comes across unabashedly pro-one company.

        Besides, any analysis that ~writes off Google on an endeavor acknowledged to be a big deal —whatever the topic— simply doesn’t resonate with me. This isn’t The Gentleman’s game, but if it were, Google could just buy themselves a professional team if they need to (or, dare I suggest, buy some “no balls”).

        If anything Google’s often dismal track record of failing to integrating it’s own services makes this recent focus on integration instill confidence. Ultimately, I remain tentatively encouraged.

  7. The Internet is a social network.

    No “alarm bells” when you added silly Twitter and FB widgets to your blog?

  8. Google Me I think is rename of Buzz, with added real-time collaboration features from Wave and layers of Social on top of Android, Youtube, Search, Maps and every other Google products. Google will extract most of Facebook’s social graph into me.google.com (compatible with Open Social) through new Browser extensions, add-ons and toolbars.

  9. Memo to Eric Schmidt: Being Social is Not a Widget (Mathew Ingram/GigaOM) | TechCombo Sunday, September 19, 2010

    [...] Ingram / GigaOM:Memo to Eric Schmidt: Being Social is Not a Widget  —  Google CEO Eric Schmidt made some comments last week about the company’s [...]

  10. I believe “add a social component” will equate to new support for logging system and application activity stream events by each of Google’s services, enabling third party services/apps/widgets to consume and visualize these events as well as enabling the addition of new events and meta data to activity streams by these consumers. OpenSocial provides a good framework for filtering these events by leveraging social contexts.

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