Memo to Eric Schmidt: Being Social is Not a Widget

robot head

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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