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


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!



Google does search exceedingly well.

They also have social media for people with ample attention span, blogs on or

Doing both puts Google in a fix. For example consider that Google has a customer in Asia that pays to advertise for top spots in a search for “international school for global indians”. The search result could (as they do!) include not only the school’s own web content but also unflattering truths about the school appearing on Google owned social media.

And, I guess Google wouldn’t tweak search results or censor speech as a matter of principle.

I don’t think that is a good way to do business in many Asian countries ! At the least, it puts Google in a fix about its priorities.

Should Google follow their paying customer and scrub the search results ? Even news papers in India such as the Times of India (paid news and private treaties) do such scrubbing in reporting. Can Google survive without ?


I really love the cricket/baseball story, great! :)

There is a video on about the links between baseball and cricket you might like.


Don’t be so hard on yourself Om. You give yourself too less credit. I’m sure you can do much better by keeping at it.

Om Malik

Thanks for your comment. I am pretty sure you will convey your meaning by keeping at it, for right now I quite don’t get it. If you are trying a hand at sarcasm, I recommend getting to the point instead.


Google does not do social, it does numbers, search, algorythms and analytics.

For me that is their problem in a sentence.
Example… I happily used Youtube, a little… now I have to Log in with a google account and not my password. That’s too much the wrong way round for me. If they want me to log in through my account, they should do it for me when I use my password. Its these little things that say, we are in control of you, and not we are in control of them that makes me dislike them.

Breakline the Costa Rica SEO

I get the post. Google is trying to follow the SOCIAL trends. They should stick to their bread and butter of owning search. But social is entirely too large of space for them to ignore. So they have to make some inroads into the space whether through the purchase of Slide or creating the ill conceived Buzz.


“On one side, the social web is moving toward a future where serendipity replaces search.”

was struggling to find that line – well put, sir.


Serendipity replaces search and goal oriented, task specific paradigms – what the heck do they even mean? All this gobbledygook notwithstanding, search may become even more important in the future as people try to find real information in the ocean of social junk. I understand that for all its efforts Google hasn’t succeeded in generating a significant revenue stream out of anything but search (and that includes Android) but how much revenue does Facebook generate? Google clearly needs to diversify but it is premature to say that Google is on its way to becoming the next IBM/Microsoft.


I think it’s important that Schmidt has come out and said Google does not have to churn out a Facebook clone, because if they did, it would inevitably fail. While it’s certainly a concern to Google that more and more people are spending time on social networks, remember that Google is still the number one place people visit to learn and discover. All Google needs to do is add the slightest social layer on top of that discovery of information. I would argue that accomplishing this doesn’t require a core competency in social, but merely a solid understanding of the online space and a reality check regarding their own “corporate DNA.” I think Google’s efforts in social will be minimal to start, yet still significant enough to make an impact on it’s position in the social space and ultimately support and extend its core ad business.

Mark Sigal

Nice narrative, Om. I see two elements on this one that seem to bode poorly for Google in the social realm. One is the fact that Google’s loosely coupled culture is (seemingly) at odds from a user experience perspective with the tight integration approach of Facebook.

Two is the fact that at some point it seems like Apple and Facebook strategically align with one another to attack Google, as their market positions, core competencies, weaknesses and relative enemies seem to favor such an outcome.

What would Google do then?

Om Malik

I won’t be too surprised to see FB and Apple align. That would be the ultimate mash-up to take on Google.

Mark Sigal

Perhaps, the dual trigger is when: A) Facebook is ready to launch their “social-powered” search engine; and B) Android momentum drives Apple/Facebook to offer developers a composite software platform play to outflank the Android approach.

Brian S Hall

Open, social Facebook aligning with closed, technical Apple. That would be quite the mash-up indeed. Can’t even imagine that happening.


Uh, no one ever partnered successfully with Apple when they were underdogs. It is inconceivable that Apple would successfully partner with someone now that they are the most successful tech company on our planet.

Seriously, if you think Google has the asocial gene, you have to see that Apple has the apartner gene.

Mark Sigal

@Edwin, Apple seemed to partner pretty darn well with Google, and it would be hard to argue that their’s was an unsuccessful partnership, save for GOOGLE co-opting Apple’s strategy. You may frame this as an underdogs v. gorilla thing, but Facebook is hardly an underdog in their domain (500M users, $1B+ business), and counter to your assertion, Apple is hardly like Microsoft, partnering so as to co-opt. Apple, generally speaking, has pretty clear lines of delineation during the Jobs era between partner v. build. If anything, it is Apple’s asocial gene that leads them to partner with Facebook v. build in-house.

Brian S Hall

Great post, Om! At its most basic, the Google DNA simply can’t change to embrace social.

[Site link coming: I review web products and services and certain factors are required for success: MOBILE, HYPERLOCAL, REAL-TIME and SOCIAL. Google is doing a great job at migrating to the mobile web. They are poor at hyperlocal information but have the potential to compete on that plane. Real-time is not what they were built for and all their efforts at real-time search/response are really band-aid solutions. SOCIAL is beyond their reach. They have nothing in their past, in their leadership, in their infrastructure, in their service that fosters social interaction. A major achilles heel and a huge opening for Facebook.]

Technology rankings here:

Aswath Rao


If the telephone device is dumb, it is a choice made by the end-users. Is PBX a dumb device? How about Fax/data modem? From 80s/90s, I have a telephone app on my desktop that can control PSTN line and can use TAPI to run custom apps on top of it. If there has not been further advancement, the fault is not with the telcos. I have to conclude that there is not much demand.


If only Google understood people like Zuckerberg does…

This is such an absurd meme. Do you really think that Zuckerberg is more of a “people person” than the people running Google?

Om Malik

How much time do you spend on Facebook, especially interacting with your friends or people you care about. I think the answer to that question is what would give me context to your comment and thus allow me to reply.


I spend almost no time on FaceBook because I don’t trust them. I would love to see the web social-enabled with an easy and reliable way to make posts private or public.

Some One

Google has a few issues that appear to regularly cause them to get into their own way:
* they have a tendency to aim to disrupt (which comes with a great risk of failure)
* they too often prioritize geek features over more mainstream consumer needs (ie they tend to build for themselves not the general marketplace)
* too many geeks! there Product Managers have a tendency to be CS grads (there product design is driven by code, formulas and mathematical proofs not for example artistic tendencies that rely more on gut instincts or cultural trends.) Facebook staffers are a hell of a lot more hip and can differentiate between the pulse of society and Mountain View.
* legacy. Google is an older, bigger corp with a lot of legacy tech, products, projects, and solutions. one would be amazed how often that gets in the way. there is also a lot of beauracracy and politics, you can’t ship something without jumping through a ton of hoops (last time they took some risk they had Buzz and that incident alone has caused them to dial back the ‘release early and often’ to where it was before)
* a strong fist with ideals but weak integration. Marissa has had a strong grip on the look and feel of the site and it has caused projects to conform to a google way of doing business that might not be ideal for that project/service. google needs to either more tightly integrate all of their products/services or allow their brand identities to go rogue.
* and more than anything there is no top-down vision of what a consolidated Google should try to be for consumers today and tomorrow (they are too busy trying to kill, destroy and disrupt)

BTW if you look at recent Facebook product launches they have been no better. Do you really think Questions was a successful launch? It was pathetic.

Engineers are generally not good product managers. Facebook is lucky to have a leader that is a great engineer and product manager. Google is not so lucky and is mostly full of arrogant engineers who by and large think product managers add no value and aren’t following a great engineering product visionary ceo with a singular vision.

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