Google Trying to Build Facebook Competitor? Good Luck With That

Updated: Google, 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, 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

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