Google Friend Connect: What's the Point?

ScreenshotThe usual sites are buzzing with the news that Google has announced its new Friend Connect service (link won’t be turned on until tonight). Google is positioning this as “a service that helps website owners grow traffic by enabling any site on the web to easily provide social features for its visitors.”

Let’s start with what this is not: Google is not getting into the white label social networking space. Startups in that arena – like KickApps, who we’ve looked at before – allow you to build up your own site with social networking features like members, blogs, photo sharing, discussion, and so on. That approach lets the individual site be the center of gravity for the network, but results in needing to join multiple networks to keep up with all of your communities.Google is taking a diametrically opposite approach, keeping the center of gravity in the network. What Friend Connect does is allow members of a small set of existing social networks (Facebook, Google Talk, hi5, Orkut, and Plaxo) to interact on multiple sites across the internet. After webmasters sign up with Friend Connect (this may be difficult for a while; they’re going to meter access via a wait list), visitors to their sites can sign in to their existing network IDs and interact with their existing friends. So, for example, if WWD went with Friend Connect (which we’re not currently planning), you could log on with your Facebook ID and see and chat with your Facebook friends here.

The interaction is all going to happen through included code snippets that display in IFRAMEs – in other words, the Friend Connect functionality will be isolated islands within your site, like raisins in a cookie. Though Google is planning to use APIs like OpenID, OpenAuth, and OpenSocial in the backend plumbing of Friend Connect, there’s no front end API to allow webmasters to get information out. If you’re running a Friend Connect-enabled site, you won’t know what visitors are even doing on that part of your pages.

This idea – that users will bring existing IDs with them and insert them into other sites on the net – has been tried before. Yahoo’s MyBlogLog is in this neighborhood, as are many startups that try to enable leaving comments on any web site. Sure, Google’s approach is a tad more standards-centered, and it has the advantage of leveraging numerous already-large member communities. But what I don’t see here is any really compelling use case.

Why should I, as a webmaster, set aside part of my page for you to have a conversation in? Why should you, as a user, come to my site to talk with your Facebook friends, rather than using Facebook? Why should I have to choose which identity to share with a site, rather than just logging in with OpenID and interacting with other users of that site? What are we getting in return for pushing another stream of data through Google?

Until we see some compelling answers to those questions, Friend Connect looks to me like an attempt to make sure that Facebook and MySpace don’t grab all the mindshare with their recent data portability announcements. Right now I don’t see enough value for either users or webmasters to recommend Friend Connect over existing solutions for adding interactivity to sites.

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