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Slide, Vic Gundotra & The Un-Social Reality of Google

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It was a nearly a decade and a half ago that I fell in love with America’s pastime, baseball. I loved the sound of the ball hitting the bat. I loved the juxtaposition of green grass and red clay on the baseball diamond. While it wasn’t quite like the cricket I grew up playing in the streets of Delhi, it was something that evoked similar emotions.

I longed to play baseball and wanted so badly to learn how to hit and pitch. Then I joined Red Herring magazine. Like many San Francisco publications of the past, the magazine employed a lively and colorful cast of characters. We played against other magazines, like Wired, and advertising agencies. Despite my lack of experience, I talked my way onto the Herring softball team.

When it came time to bat, I suddenly realized that I was holding the baseball bat as if I was playing cricket. When the pitch came to me, I took a step forward and drove it to right field, much as I was driving a ball through the covers on a cricket field. No matter what I did, I couldn’t hit the ball hard enough to drive in a run. This went on for a few games. I just didn’t have the baseball swing. Cricket was so ingrained in my thinking and how I related to a bat and ball that it may as well have been encoded in my DNA.

Ain’t Got That Swing

I love baseball and will always await the first day of spring training with the ardor of a lover coming home after an exile. But I will never be a baseball player. It’s just not in my make-up. My misery over my failed baseball career is no different than Google’s (s goog). The world’s largest search engine covets a key to the magical kingdom called the social web. It would do anything to become part of that exclusive club that, for now, is the domain of Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook and to some extent, Twitter.

Google will do just about anything to get social, like spend a rumored $182 million on San Francisco-based Slide, a head-scratcher of a deal. Some rumors say the price was as high as $228 million. Now, I’m happy for Max Levchin and his investors, but frankly, the deal shows that Google not only has no idea what to do about social, but actually lacks the imagination to even think of anything worthwhile on its own. If Google is really trying to go social and get on the social gaming bandwagon, this deal is comparable to buying a Kia and hoping it can help you race past a Mercedes AMG 65 on the Autobahn.

On Quora, a social Q&A services, someone asks, “Why did Slide and RockYou miss/avoid the social gaming trend that Zynga and Playfish capitalized upon?“. The answers are quite telling, but the response from Josh Elman (formerly of Facebook) stands out:

I think that Zynga and Playfish both started with gaming as their sole focus. They weren’t trying to “pick the trend,” they just believed that you could combine casual games with the new distribution models of social networks and create new businesses. Both of them discovered the extraordinary opportunities of monetization after a lot of hard work and failures. I think one of the challenges of Slide and RockYou during those periods was they probably did try harder to “pick the trend” and optimize it rather than just build towards something deeper and more sustainable.

Ironically, what Google is doing is exactly the same — pick a trend and optimize for it.

By the Engineers, for the Engineers

This only amplifies what I felt earlier this morning. Having failed to hire a head of social, Google decided to put its man for all seasons, Vic Gundotra, in charge of social. Having seen Vic at work (first at Microsoft (s msft) and later at Google), I just wonder if he is the right guy for the gig. He’s a smart and analytical product manager — his work on Google Mobile only shows that — but social needs more than the ability to add games, features and music.

Social is more than just features. I’ve been saying for a while that in order to understand social and win over the social web, companies need to understand people. I’m not sure Google is capable of understanding people on that level, and that’s the reason why the company strikes out whenever it tries. There are rumors Google co-founder Sergey Brin championed the acquisition of Slide. He also championed Google Wave (which is shutting down) and the poorly conceived Google Buzz.

Google, thanks to two brilliant engineer-founders, has become a great company seemingly able to solve the world’s most complicated engineering problems. That ability made it turn search into the great money machine that it is. It knows how to tweak machines and make them do unfathomable things. But what it can’t do is internalize empathy. It doesn’t know feelings. It doesn’t comprehend that relationships are more than a mere algorithm. You can see this in its many offerings; they’re efficient, but devoid of emotion, and emotions are what drive interaction. A smile begets a smile, a frown a frown and a conversation a conversation. That’s true in the real world, and it’s true on the web.

IBM, Microsoft & Google

Adam Rifkin outlined this in a brilliant post (summarized here), which, unfortunately, is not accessible online. His argument, and I wholeheartedly agree, is that you are who you are and that’s the way it is. Google can’t change, just as I couldn’t change my batting stance. The whole company is built around “goal-oriented behavior,” which essentially means “come to Google, do your search and move onto the next thing.” That’s its fate and also its destiny. If the company doesn’t recognize it, then it’s going to go down the road IBM (s ibm) took in the 1990s and Microsoft is currently walking along, an argument poignantly made by Dave Winer in this lesson in technology history.

The way I see it, Google is facing pressure from two different directions. On one side, the social web is moving toward a future where serendipity replaces search. Facebook is on this side. On the other side, with mobile apps, Apple (s aapl) has helped popularize a new goal-oriented, task-specific paradigm that essentially starts to obviate the need for search. These two behavior changes are clear and present danger to Google, as I pointed out last year in a GigaOM research report (subscription required.)

Buying Slide, investing in Zynga or launching Google Me are great ideas in theory, just as is the idea of me playing baseball!

94 Responses to “Slide, Vic Gundotra & The Un-Social Reality of Google”

  1. What you’re describing is that Google’s culture is preventing them from making social work for them. Combine this with the innovators dilemma and you have a possible lethal combination. It’s the same reason why Microsoft has been struggling on multiple fronts.

    It can be done though. IBM re-invented itself a number of times. But maybe spinning off a social arm with it’s own culture that’s conducive to social innovation is what Google needs.

  2. To say Google is good at one thing, search, is wrong. Do you know how many people use gmail? As far as Microsoft goes, I wouldn’t call XBox 360 a flaming pile of fail. I’m skipping Facebook and I run into people all the time who are either leaving it or haven’t signed on in months.

  3. Robert Zion

    Facebook is also run by geeks. FYI the best way to create a social network is get users data and make it public by default at a later date. Then you get tons of voyeurs ( all of us are, many dont admit) and tons of pageviews and so on. Having a neat interface doesnt hurt.

  4. I agree that Google is effectively a one-trick pony in terms of search, however as long as it is able to do that one task better than anyone else, it can be argued that other, newer internet services boost Google as much as Google boosts them.

  5. Googls has always been essentially a startup cultured organization who did not fear anything nor thought only about the profits. Google has always relied on great technology innovations. But more and more these days, Google is loosing that startup DNA and behaving like Microsoft who think that buying out more companies will add value but dont get that value in reality. Aquisitions and Copy-efforts are no substitute for Technology and Innovation.

  6. Om,

    Sorry, but this post reads like your baseball skills…you’re swinging hard but just aren’t connecting.

    It’s not a lack of empathy or too much goal-oriented behavior that’s holding Google back, and the opposite definitely isn’t a reason for Facebook’s success (picture Mark Zuckerberg…does the word “empathetic” come to mind??)

    Serendipity won’t (and doesn’t have to) replace search in the social web. Rather, the social web (or just FB) will create a whole new index of links/status updates/likes/and personal info that Google doesn’t have access to. You don’t have to beat Google on algorithms when they can’t index your content.

    Also, Google hasn’t totally failed at social – they just haven’t evenly distributed their successes yet. Ask anyone who works at Google how much they love Buzz…it’s a run-away success when the network dynamics are right.

    Why is Google struggling with social? Google doesn’t like to (or doesn’t know how to) bait users – while Facebook excels at it. (The same might explain Slide vs. Zynga). With Scamville, etc…there’s a lot not to like about the behaviors/mechanics of the social web and for now Google has chosen to not play dirty. It just might turn out that’s the cost of admission in today’s social web.

      • Does it count as a mass-market success? Definitely not. But it shows that Google is capable of building social products – they just didn’t have the right network dynamics in place (mixing personal and private networks was a disaster for security/privacy/and sometimes even sharing in general)

    • Adam,

      Thanks for your very insightful dismissal of my argument. I respectfully disagree with you and only time would tell if Google will succeed.

      I think serendipity will replace search. We are amidst a behavior shift — and when that happens, search starts to lose some of its control.

      Of course, the beauty of the web, is if I am wrong, you will remind me of that and I will eat crow. :-)

      As for Buzz and its success, I will let PXlated’s comment stand.

      • The point around – Google has chosen to not play dirty- is something I agree with. I trust google more with my data than I trust FB.

        Privacy has not yet become the deterministic factor on winning the Social software war. My guess is that to get to the next level of maturity , privacy will be very important.

  7. Awesome post, dude! Google is intelligence (=”the algorithm”) at the core, Facebook is intelligence (= people) at the edge. Edge intelligence always wins – the phone company model with intelligence in the switches and dumb telephones at the edges was replaced by a network of dumb routers at the core with workstations and mini computers at the edge (in the 80’s/90’s).
    One Internet old timer once asked me – “where is the edge of the Internet?” – I was thinking Akamai etc but he said “at your keyboard”. Facebook reaches out and pulls that intelligence in from 500 million keyboards. Google tries to orchestrate those keyboards via 500,000 servers.

    You nailed it with the “empathy” point. It was profound – are you in love, or something?

    • I have no opinion on the main topic. But your claim that “the phone company model with intelligence in the switches and dumb telephones at the edges was replaced by a network of dumb routers at the core with workstations and mini computers at the edge (in the 80′s/90′s)” is patently false. “Stupid Network” paper not withstanding.

      The telecom switches route traffic just as stupidly as Internet routers.

      • Hi Aswath,

        The time it refers to is the 80’s/90’s and the bigger point is not the core but the edges – the wireline phone company has a model where the edge – the telephone is a dumb device. That was the point. Yes one could argue that the routing function of the switch is similar to internet routers but with the phone company that’s the sum total of intelligence in the network not so with the ‘net.

  8. you don’t need empathy and emotion to succeed in social. Facebook and Twitter aren’t solving world poverty, you only need to understand one thing: people are exhibitionist and voyeuristic. I have no problem with you saying Google doesn’t get social (which I think it’s because social is bloody useless, Google makes useful products), but please, saying engineers have no empathy and emotion is simply rubbish.

  9. This is really all about money, or should I say “virtual money”. Google knows that Facebook is about to go supernova when they start printing money as people begin purchasing virtual goods (meaning nothing but specs on a managed server) using Facebook Credits virtual currency. Facebook is going to be raking in absolutely mind boggling amounts of cash every minute as people spend real money on virtual gifts to give their friends, throw at their friends, poke their friends with etc.

    Their has never been this amount of money and level of smart IT companies chasing this type of opportunity…ever! Monetizing via virtual currency is going to bring unspeakable wealth to those that do it well, and social game companies have figured it out first.

  10. Om, good points but with all due respect, I disagree.

    Google may be late to the game, but high ambitions + tons of cash — not necessarily but — may be equal to success. So I wouldn’t cross Google off.

    Google has very smart people who do understand social; for example Brad Fitzpatrick, the father of memcache (the core technology that empowers Facebook and others) and OpenID (ancestor of Facebook Connect) is with them. And the Slide acquisition shows that they’re keen to add even more talent in. They’re making great business partnerships. These are all good signs. Better than just sitting and watching what’s happening while Facebook diminishes their percentage in the global online advertising revenues pie.

    • Emre

      I wouldn’t discount them either. I guess if you spend enough money and wait long enough you will get it right — sort of like Bing and Microsoft. I think the point I am making is that unless it is part of your DNA, it is much harder to play a game that has been mastered by some else.

      That said, there are many other options for Google to be going for and trying to master — ones that leverage their skills as a fearsome engineering machine. In fact that might be topic of another post in itself.

      • How is FB different than google in DNA? They are all engineers – significant number of FB guys worked at google once. @ev of twitter is a google ex and IMHO the most thoughtful and deliberate in the social software world.

        If you said that myspace has a different DNA , I would agree since these guys truly lived in a non-engineering centric world. EG: Hulu has a different DNA than Youtube because the investors and the founders have a different understanding of the Media MArket

      • james hong

        Few people seem to remember that it was actually (in my opinion) Brad that started social networking as we know it today. Friendster came out after Livejournal. Livejournal was the first site to enable users to create “Friends” and “Friends of” lists that induced reciprocity of linking, and actually were the first to create newsfeeds in the form of their “Friends” page (which was a compilation of all your friend’s posts, all on one page). Of course, it was sixdegrees that started the concept of listing your friends, but back then users did not have the tools to generate the content (photos) that would take these things over the hump and into our daily lives.

        There are people within Google that get Social, I am sure of it. The problem as you point out is that there are probably people in Google who don’t get it and never will, and the question is whether Google as an org can deal with this DNA impurity. Can the bad DNA recognize it is bad and let the good DNA get to work? That is the self awareness Google needs to achieve to get what it wants. I see them acquiring Slide as a positive sign that they are on the right path.

        As for Zynga beating Slide (in games), I do not think this is an indicator that Zynga has stronger Social DNA. Don’t forget that Slide had a bulk of the top apps on facebook in the early days.. Funwall (which FB then killed by incorporating the capabilities of it into their standard wall feature), Top Friends, My Questions (Quora was not the first), and Superpoke when app virality was more a free market, more unfettered by the host.

        But then maybe 3 months after F8 launched, FB started choking off viral channels…they didn’t see what value apps were adding as a whole, except for the games who later started to buy FB ads and then later could implement FB credits. So by choking off viral channels, they simultaneously killed off non-monetizing apps and promoted game apps that bought their ads. This is why Zynga got big while Slide shrank.

        But that does not mean that in a free-market environment, games are inherently the most social app (in fact, it’s pretty obvious photos are even more social). Gaming was the biggest type of app because FB made it so. Slide’s position was not a reflection of lack of social DNA, it was reflection of the fact that they were building apps with scale as the objective (arguably an indicator of being more social) and not revenue (where they could pay FB)

        The truth is Slide has and has always had strong Social DNA. I am not saying this because Max is one of my closest friends, nor because I was a small shareholder of Slide stock… I am saying this because I was close enough to Slide to know, and I hope I have enough credibility as an empathic product guy myself to have some level of credibility in being able to spot it.

        If Google pigeonholes max into just thinking about gaming then I agree that is a problem. But if they are willing to unleash his intuitiveness (and Brad’s) about what makes things Social on all of their products, and new products, then it is a sign that Google’s bad social DNA is starting to get out of the way of its strong social DNA, and in fact is working actively to get more strong social DNA into the company.

        The truth is that Max now has the distribution of Google to work with, and can implement social in a free marketplace (the internet) rather than a rigged one.

        I think this town finally has a viable underdog to root for.

  11. If, according to you, Google’s search dominance is increasingly being squeezed between Facebook and Twitter on one side and Apple’s goal-oriented, task-specific mobile apps paradigm, on the other, then Google’s doing pretty good in battering to a pulp, the Apple side of the squeeze. Notwithstanding that these apps are increasingly on inevitably dominating mass Android devices, apps are a stop-gap measure as more and more powerful devices and faster networks point to the largely browser-based future running on mobile OSes, most likely Google’s. Apple’s elitist DNA don’t do mass markets where Google’s the one trick Clydesdale.

    So, you say Google doesn’t do social well, although Google Buzz on Mobile is pretty good. You should be grateful that there are companies like Google that keep on experimenting with things, be it copy or me-too’s or something new, that will hopefully land on something that works, instead of something like Apple that keeps spewing out overhyped overpriced Digitally Clueless Beauty Pageant Queen products. Baseball and cricket teaches you to keep trying to hit even if you don’t succeed alot of times, keep swinging that bat.

  12. What is so funny about all of this, is that Google did have people who gorked Social Networks, like the Orkut Büyükkökten guy, but just took his network, and tried to fit it with everything else.

    Now if they had only just left it alone…

    Google should just stick with making it more interesting to search social networks.. that’s it.

  13. Twitter only benefits few famous people with many followers (like you). Facebook is a piece of cake and highly over valued, it does very little revenue and no profit.

    That doesn’t mean there is no future in social networks. Twitte and facebook just aren’t it.

    Google needs to work on making the right type of social service. They are bringing in Features of Wave and Buzz into Google Me, simplifying the UI and optimizing the usability of all the features, then opening the protocol, like open social but better. Google doesn’t expect many users for all their products. Nexus One, Wave, Buzz didn’t have many users, but they are huge successes in terms of technology unleashings onto the market, NExus One spurred a huge growth in Android ecosystem projecting it on top of all smart phone sales in the USA and soon worldwide, Wave and Buzz are hugely acclaimed among developers demonstrations of open technologies that are to be part of the finalized open social networking platform.

  14. While I agree with your point that Google’s products are more about getting specific tasks done than hanging out and having fun online, I fail to see how empathy or the lack thereof is the problem. After all, Facebook isn’t your doctor or priest, it’s just a website. Facebook succeeds as a social networking site because it provides an integrated environment for services that are essential for people’s social interaction: status update, sharing photos/videos, event organization, groups, etc. There is nothing inherently “empathetic” about any of these services; they just suit the job (i.e. social interaction) better than services from other companies. Case in point: (probably the best dating site in terms of UI and functionality) is run by a group of Harvard applied MATHEMATICIANS! It doesn’t matter if these people might not be the best lady’s men in the world; they just have to provide a solid product that has the necessary functionalities (e.g. IM, messaging, profile filtering, matching) with a good UI. It seems that Google’s problem is more with product design and management than with the vague notion of “empathy”.

    • Except Google is not that great at UI either :). Sure, you might like a few of their products for their “simplicity” but the kind of simplicity they are thinking doesn’t always equal great UI.

      Google lacks the culture of UI/design, and their idea of simplicity probably came from the fact that they didn’t know to design any better, either.

      Coders are usually different from designers – different as in coders “usually” can’t design, and “designers” can’t code. I believe Google has created, from the beginning, a culture of coders, and this culture has kept feeding itself by allowing even more coders inside, and keeping the “designer types” ((and the ones with more empathy as Om says) outside(you do know about Google’s interviewing system, right?).

      In fact, a few years ago, a good designer they hired, left blaming this type of culture. You can read about it here:

      • Completely agree. This is the same reason Netscape (not the browser war) lost while Yahoo gained as content site in 90s. And Google could be next to lose the search race or apps if they continue with simplicity mantra which works great with geeks and coders. Never under estimate the power of UI in world of consumers. is just one of the example how a rich UI driven we base software can achieve in a short time while quicken loses the race of personal financial management tool race. (Quicken ended the game with buying

  15. IMO, Google should not look at games as the secret sauce for its social networking venture. Google is supposed to be the expert at organizing information and making it accessible in useful ways. Google should focus its efforts in helping its users organize their personal information and share it with others at varying levels of granularity.

    I don’t like to plug in my website in these comments, but in this case I think it is relevant. I described a fictitious Google product called Lifeline: . I believe that this product could easily become Google’s social networking platform.

  16. Who’re the people running Facebook? I don’t buy it, the entire silicon valley is run by geeks. Feeding virtual cows would sound pathetically geeky and socially inept 10 years ago, now huge numbers of idiots are doing it. Computer geeks don’t understand human? they’re practically shaping your social life these days.

    • ValleyVC

      +1. Agree.

      FB is a piece of junk. Just a webpage hosting company being hyped and marketed as some sort of new thing. Most silicon valley VC backed companies do nothing but hype and market.

      VC backed AD supported non-sensical bogus DOT COM companies are back in vogue. FB, Twit, Linkedin,…… We never learned our lesson.

      Appeal to LP’s: Take your money back from VC’s and run!!! This bubble is about to burst all over again.

  17. Finally a good, neutral post for Google from a Valley reporter. I am a Valley guy but have always felt that idiots at Techchurnch like blogs have taken tech journalism to lowest level. I can relate to cricket and baseball analogy. It feels the same and you think you can do it but it is not…

  18. I agree with neeraj…

    Small companies can take certain risk and try out various things and one in 1000 clicks…big companies have to leverage their market position by grabbing those successful companies….I am glad they are buying successful companies rather than inventing on their own….google would have not build android with out equipping it…and android could have not grown so big without google leverage it’s market musle…

    What google could do to innovate is incubate/fund some successful smaller companies….to get it’s presence….rope the talent pool of some smaller innovative companies…

    Facebook is just doing that in more crude way by buying successful small companies to build as core team….that is a smart move by them which google should leverage it’s position….

    apple wouldn’t be unstoppable if google has not entered android…

    Appengine is very innovative platform…where google has some core strengths….

    Btw, OM since you are cricket fan try out for live cricket with audio bytes…it is built on google app engine….and it scales really well…at times 500 requests/sec….

  19. Thought provoking post – Thanks

    The argument that since you have been not able to spot a new social trend you should not even attempt to latch on to something another person is successful at is false. Practice makes a man perfect. Only if you keep on experimenting with things, be it copy or me-too’s or something new , you will land on something that works.

    Apple , ryan air , Microsoft all took ideas from someother place and experimented to ultimately land on something successful.

    • Maybe if it’s a static, spec type of thing – These are all moving targets being steered by people that already get it and have the mental requirements. Google may hit on something completely new/novel but they certainly haven’t shown that ability since their original search theory.

    • Om – In the baseball cricket case – I would argue that you did not try hard enough to learn baseball.

      Further, if you mastered baseball also- I am sure you would have brought some tricks to the baseball world based on your learning’s in the cricket world

  20. Om, you’ve nailed it. I’ve expressed the same feelings about Google but you’re a writer & story teller and I’m not :-)

    Your point in social about lacking emotion/empathy is so true. They can’t compete in any arena that requires it. They also can’t compete where it takes a right brain, anything in the liberal arts area (interfaces, design, etc) – This was obvious to me the minute they analyzed browser blues and spent over a year studying left column navigation. And, they can’t hire the deficiencies away. The deficiency is in the corporate DNA, starts at the top and goes to the bottom.

    Of course I don’t expect them to realize this but Facebook and Apple will always beat them. And all this will dilute/marginalize them in advertising (especially mobile) as well. One analyst downgraded them today and feels their glory days are over. I wouldn’t be surprised.