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Google Trying to Build Facebook Competitor? Good Luck With That

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Updated: Google (s goog), according to a much-retweeted message posted by Digg co-founder Kevin Rose over the weekend — which he attributed to a “very credible source” — is working on a Facebook competitor to be called Google Me. There’s been much debate since about what such a service might look like, with some theorizing it could be a blend of Google Buzz and Orkut, the often-forgotten Google social network. Others are expecting it to be an evolution of Google Profiles, in which users could add Facebook-like features to their profile pages. But one thing is almost certain: the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against the search engine company. Despite its size and market clout, Google hasn’t shown that it has any real understanding of how social networking actually works, or any idea what to do with it.

Although there is little evidence of a Google Me project apart from Rose’s tweet, the idea that the search and advertising giant might be trying to cobble together a Facebook competitor is at least plausible, for a couple of reasons:

  • Search: Despite a deal with Microsoft (s msft), in which the software company powers its search engine, Facebook is currently not a major player in search, with a fairly small share of the market. However, the social network’s rollout of its new social graph search, in which the “likes” that users record at millions of websites are recorded and indexed, could serve to put a wrench in Google’s gears. Although there is still debate about how much competition such a search engine could be for Google, it’s clearly on Facebook’s radar.
  • Advertising: Advertisers are increasingly interested in taking advantage of social networking, and the reality is that Facebook has become the de facto way to do that. The number of advertisers it’s working with doubled last year, and despite some debate about what a Facebook “fan” is really worth to a company, that number is almost certain to grow. The risk for Google is that advertisers will start to prefer ads based on a person’s social interactions rather than what they type into a search box, a risk Om flagged in a GigaOM Pro report last year (subscription required).

Could Google put together a credible competitor to Facebook? Anything is possible, but so far there’s little reason to believe that the search giant could come up with a service that represented a real threat. Orkut may be popular in South America and India, but has shown no signs of growing outside of those countries. Could Google use it as the basis for something that takes parts of Google Buzz, parts of Google Profiles, parts of Google Wave and parts of Blogger to construct a comprehensive social network? Theoretically, but that sounds more like a Frankenstein-style strategy than anything else — stitching together pieces of half-dead services and hoping they come alive.

Although Google has been working hard to add features to Buzz since its rough start earlier this year, the service does not appear to be gaining much traction (Google hasn’t released any figures on number of users). Google Wave, which also had a much-hyped launch, seems to have more or less sunk without a trace, or at least has not been able to build much of a popular following. Google Profiles provides some of the same features as a Facebook profile, and has the ability to pull in streams of activity from other services in a similar way to Friendfeed, the social network that Facebook acquired, but Profiles don’t seem to be all that popular either — nor has Google’s Friend Connect gotten much widespread adoption. Google Latitude is interesting, especially when combined with Android and mobile devices, but it has so far failed to provide much competition for Foursquare or Gowalla.

The bottom line is that while Google seems to have many of the pieces of a potential social network, they are scattered here and there, either not connected to each other or only loosely so, and without any sign of a coherent strategy (Google Wave and Google Buzz, for example, are independent services that overlap in many ways, but were launched by separate teams and don’t really work together). Maybe once Google hires a new head of social all that will change, but for now Facebook probably doesn’t need to lose a lot of sleep worrying about competition from Google — more likely it’s the other way around.

Update: Adam D’Angelo, a former Facebook executive who now runs a question-and-answer service called Quora, has added some fuel to the rumors about Google Me in a response to a question at the site. Based on reports from what he calls “reliable sources,” D’Angelo says: “This is not a rumor. This is a real project. There are a large number of people working on it. I am completely confident about this.” He also notes that the service is being modeled on Facebook, that it is “high priority” and that Google is “really scared” of the social network’s growth.

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

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Stephen Brace

42 Responses to “Google Trying to Build Facebook Competitor? Good Luck With That”

  1. Indded the greatest risk for Google is that advertisers will turn their ad funds to ads based on a person’s social interactions rather than what they type into a search box becasue that is where they will get the most bang for their dollar. I would be really worried if I was Google. They have not been able to translate their engineering into into a scalabe social model which it can monetize.

  2. Steve-O

    I disagree with the assumption that Google is going to fail. Facebook is currently on the downfall, just the way MySpace was this time 2 years ago. People will venture out and find other, better places to go. If Google can give people what they want, and market it in a very subtle manner (unlike Bing’s over-marketing flop), they could succeed.

    For those of you assuming Google is going to fail because they have no experience in this field, please wise-up. They can hire anyone they want, including consultants that would specialize in human behavior or anything you could imagine that would assist them in creating the greatest social network imaginable. Because if it can be imagined, you can bet your @#! that Google can afford to have it imagined.

    Just sayin’

  3. Tierlieb

    Where is the problem of competing with Facebook?

    Just offer the same functionality, just avoid lying which data you use, which data you let others use, err on the side of caution when handling data… just avoid what you can read about FB in the news on a weekly basis. Even the dreaded “engineers at google”.

    It is simple. Everyone can implement a better Facebook. But few companies besides Google have the visibility to get it the presence -and thereby user base- needed.

    Fits very well with the general strategy of google to break up monopolistic structures (remember the route-planning industry before Google Maps?) and embed it into their own advertising scheme.

  4. Style and trust is all it needs. Apple is owning the former in the digital realm and noone has delivered yet on the former. If Google could prove both those elements, it would prevail based on cash and scale. But I think it’s unlikely as it would require a sea-change in its culture which I’m not sure it’s capable of. Need to emply a few more stupid people who understand the remaining 99% of the population they serve…

      • Check out which has some interesting behind the scene backers, but my take on it is that Facebook will prevail if it accepts it has become a ubiquitious utility like a telephone and can never be an ad platform. (They can rape our privacy all they like, but can never own our data and I still think the shameful commercialisation of Wikipedia content within the platform won’t go unnoticed either.) I think we’ll soon see an option to pay for an ad free service, but if they don’t do something to restore trust and monetize genuinely, they risk seeing the 21bn valuation evaporate.

        Our take of course is that the 20% of the 80:20 rule was never in the platform anyway, hence, because brands and celebrities who still want to stand out from the crowd, can never become part of it…

        Whoever wins the consumer vote for style and trust will win overall imho…

  5. The engg vs social debate is a non-issue, really. FB has some of the best engineers in the world. Yes, Google probably has more of them, but FB is not exactly filled with non-nerds who figured out a long time ago exactly what the world needs.

    FB’s usability (or any other social aspect) is not it’s USP. What made it successful was being there at the right time with the right product, and then getting social acceptance (amongst the student crowd). And let’s not forget the solid engineering behind it.

    Google (or a few others) could have as well done an FB. But Google suffers from the incumbent’s dilemma – improve what we have (today’s milking cow) rather than build something new (for tomorrow). Having said this, Orkut is not an “also ran”. It has a pretty big user base though outside the USA (and i fear USA is the center of the world for most commentators here who see Orkut as fail). And blogspot, though not FB, is a significant success.

  6. Jack C

    Facebook should be extremely worried, assuming of course that they want to make money off their platform. Twitter should be worried too.

    Google has thrived in the space between users and the web. They’ve successfully monetized it, have a huge foothold, and deliver value to both side of the customer equation. By leveraging their experience, data, partners and users, Google remains a large and growing threat, especially to those social platforms that still, after however many years, struggle with the money piece. Furthermore, if Google can figure out how to integrate all of their pieces together (maybe Google Me is such an attempt), they’ll be able to deliver irresistible value.

    On a related note, where others seem to delight in Google’s many “failures”, I’ll take their dare to fail small and often approach any day. In a rapidly evolving landscape, how else are you going to stay at the front of the pack? How many exemplars of the outcome of complacent behavior do we need before we figure that out?

  7. Acudaddy

    While I think Google has been working on various ways to incorporate a Social aspect to parts of its application offering, I don’t think it is in any way a major goal for the company. Google makes all its money from advertising, and so does facebook. Google has a major advantage in that someone will enter into Google what it is they are actually looking for. Google will not only give native results it will also use your location to serve up targeted ads that relate specifically to what it is you are searching for. It’s much more difficult to get this same level of targeted marketing on a social network. You go to a social network to interact with friends. Look at some status updates; see some pictures from that party you went to last week. Yes you do see ads but you were not looking for anything. You’re not nearly as likely to click on that ad if it’s not something you are interested in. Yes you can follow a company or a product. I started following a coffee company at one point. I ignore all of the posts they submit unless they are giving something away for free. While this form of marketing has its place, it is and can never be as targeted as showing you ads for something you are already looking to buy.

    • That’s a fair point, and one of the reasons why Facebook could have trouble producing as much of a success as Google from a revenue standpoint — social networks and even recommendations from your friends aren’t the same as searching for something. But that said, advertisers want those recommendations pretty badly, and are willing to pay for them.

      • If friends’ recommendations in the form of “like” is FB’s focus, Google needs not worry. It takes more than a FB ‘like” for me to consider it a recommendation. If a friend is gonna recommend something to me, she will talk about her own user experience in a conversation not share with me through a FB like. I have friends working in marketing who would ask their friends to help push up the the fan number and like click of the promotions of their own companies. Frankly, like is of very little value when you choose a product or service.

  8. I don’t think they need to go head to head with FB, what Google/Yahoo/Microsoft should do is to add more social features to their service, so that people don’t have to logon to FB to get connected with friends and get their news (actually we already have twitter for that. It will reduce facebook to a place where you play farmville and check relationship status.

  9. They are socially scattered for a reason. 20B cash on hand they could own social and lbs tomorrow if they wanted to. socially retarded and still making the most money. everything they do is perfect when it comes to monetizaiton, they wanna make money not friends.

  10. coolrepublica

    I want to hold judgement until I see the end product before saying it would fail 100%.

    Although I don’t think the odd of success are great because Google gives engineers too much say on products. A Facebook killer will not be invented by an engineer. It is theoretically impossible. Engineers are not socially minded people. They are the guys who dine in the google lunch room at 8PM instead of going home and having a “social life.”

    Google needs to bring in some non-nerds to come up with a concept and let the engineers code it. But that will never happens because google think non-engineers are stupid. Therefore Google is doomed struggle in the social department.

    • I think that’s a great point — Google’s focus has always been on the engineering side, not on the social or human side, and that may prevent them from being able to properly understand how a social network functions or grows.

    • That’s a lot of criticism of engineers who are the ones that initially conceptualized and built every social network out there.

      Facebook did not become what it is today because of any brilliant social networking strategy execution. Facebook is what it is today because a lot of college students started using it initially. And they did not do so because it was any better than the other ‘n’ number of social networks out there a few years ago. They did so simply because their friends and their friends’ friends happened to be on it. That is the basic building block of social networks which spells success or failure – friends and friends’ friends. Easily replicable stuff like UI features are only secondary for the success of social networks.

      I have said this before in Gigaom comments: Google already has most people’s friends and friends’ friends using its many services. Behind the scenes, Google is already a humongous social network. It ALREADY KNOWS more about people, their relationships with other people and the likes / dislikes of all these people than Facebook ever did. And Google knows all this without the need for an outward-facing, obvious ‘social network’ UI. Such a UI will only be the icing on the cake for Google. It is just the equivalent of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.

      Consider this:

      An FB user organizes a party and send an FB invitation to all her friends. FB knows about this party in three ways – the invitation and people’s responses to it, people’s status updates, pictures posted from the party.

      A Google user organizes a party and sends a Gmail invitation to all her friends. Google knows about this party in three ways – Gmail of the original user and other party invitees, people’s status updates on Buzz, Orkut, etc., Google Maps searches for party location, updates on people’s Google calendars (there are more people than ever using Google calendars due to Android), Google Voice sms’s exchanged about the party, pictures posted on Picasa web albums, Google latitude – if a few party attendees are using it, Google Docs (if the party organizer uses it to plan the party), etc., etc.

      See, even without one unifying UI, Google knows more about the party than Facebook does. More of Google’s services are being used by the party organizer and the party attendees. This means, Google has a lot of information and a lot of opportunities for serving ads. Lot more than Facebook. That is what really matters in this game.

      It would be stupidity to look at a social network as a naive user staring at a single screen with pictures and status updates. That is not the social network. The real social network is hidden in people’s interactions, it permeates the real world. In the real world, people look at Google’s screens lot more than FB’s screens. In being aware of these interactions, understanding / analyzing them and using them to serve ads, Google is far far ahead of Facebook. Facebook is the one which needs loads and loads of luck and even more hardwork to be able to catch up with Google. I doubt it ever will.

      • Of Course

        Look, you really need to be careful when the facts begin to cloud your judgment. Why go to such lengths of analysis and reason?

        Here’s the deal:

        Google is a robot that will always fail in social networking due to an inability to understand human emotion.

        On the other hand, Mark Zuckerberg is clearly the king of cool, a modern-day Arthur Fonzarelli. Not being a nerd was the key to his success in building the world’s dominant social networking site.

      • I’m not denigrating the work of engineers by any means. And I realize that Google knows a lot about us by virtue of the fact that we all use one or more services. But I question whether turning all this into an actual social network or unified service is a matter of “dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.” If it’s that simple, why hasn’t Google done it already?

      • All those ways that you mentioned Google knowing about a party, don’t they rely on an individual being connected to Google in all those ways? FB has the information you listed simply by someone having signed up. As the article mentioned, Google’s social services are very scattered and disjointed. For them to have all the sources of information you listed their customer would have needed to join up with each of those services. Personally I am a Google user, but I have no desire to join up with Buzz or any of those other things. To be honest I hadn’t hear of most of them until I read this. I think that’s where Facebook has the upper hand – one user, one account, stacks of information. Google only has all that information if they’re lucky enough to have users who have joined up with each of their services.

    • They are the guys who dine in the google lunch room at 8PM instead of going home and having a “social life.”

      LOL, they’re the same geeks who invent “social life” on the internet, all you “normal” people joined them en mass. They probably should get some chicks on their social projects, they’re the ones who’s really into FB, the guys are just there for the girls.