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Why Google Has No Game

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A few weeks ago, I wrote Pandas and Lobsters: Why Google Cannot Build Social Applications, a post that dissected why Google (s goog) doesn’t get social. Since then, Google appears to have stepped up its efforts to develop a coherent social strategy. To paraphrase the Black Eyed Peas, Google is so 2000 and late, trying to get into a business that Facebook lost interest in a couple years ago.

Since Google didn’t have the social DNA, it’s taken the strategy used by awkward rich guys everywhere by trying to buy some hotness: Slide and Jambool. If that wasn’t enough, they made expensive investments in Zynga and ngmoco.

In doing so, Google just SuperPoked itself in the eyeballs, giving Facebook more time to expand its ad revenues to roughly twice as much as 2009. Google is playing games while Facebook finds ways to mint money from social advertising. Google’s playing a game of ChaseBook, and, in doing so, is gearing up to fight a Facebook that doesn’t even exist anymore: Interactive brand conversations are the future, not games! Therefore, I feel like it’s time to provide Google with a remedial lesson in social in four easy pieces:

  1. Real social engagement comes from photo-sharing and chat. I thank Fred Wilson for that insight. It’s why FriendFeed was such a fantastic acquisition for Facebook: because they deeply understand that. Google should start by turning Picasa into a social application. If Google really cares about social engagement, copy Flickr (s yhoo). Or better yet, buy it; I’m sure Carol Bartz is still having a fire sale, as she’s been more than willing to give away Search, Zimbra, Hot Jobs, Personals, and so on, for little more than $24 in beads.
  2. What worked two years ago does not work now. Even Slide knows that FunSpace, SuperPoke, and Top Friends are so 2008. So don’t expect the “viral techniques” of the past to work: Slide had 130 million users in 2007, but 27 million users in 2010. In case Google hasn’t noticed, the candles in the Facebook ecosystem have burned themselves out. As for Open Social… who cares in a world of Facebook Connect plus iPhone (s aapl) and Android?
  3. Engaging applications spam their users. Any sufficiently successful “viral” marketing technique contains the seeds of its own destruction, as it crosses the line from engaging to spammy. Google doesn’t have the stomach for such behavior.
  4. Many people are just not into social games. That’s right, half of Facebook users don’t play games, and many users hate games. Plus, the whole gaming ecosystem feels like it’s about to collapse on itself. It’s no wonder that Playdom sold out. For Facebook, games were a means to an end: a way to experiment with the pay-for-application-installs business model long enough to evolve into an advertising unit allowing brands and companies to promote (and pay for “likes” on) their Facebook Pages.

Facebook Pages + Data = Money

Now three different parts of Google’s organization are distracted playing games while Facebook Pages continue to build on their massive lead. The value of Facebook to advertisers isn’t in games; it’s in Facebook Pages and the demographic data that accompanies “Like” buttons. Even Twitter knows that putting “Like” or “Tweet” buttons everywhere is tremendously appealing to brand managers and marketing agencies.

It’s pretty evident that Old Spice’s social media campaign is the future, but that campaign used Facebook and Twitter to interact with consumers, not YouTube. YouTube is good for Looks, not “Likes” or conversations. And you need to pay a lot of money for Likes. I recently had to bid 99 cents per Like! What Google needs is a set of tools to make normal web sites as socially interactive and easy to manage as Facebook Pages.

Google chasing games is the company not being true to itself, and the result will be painful. Google, I implore you to let go of the past month and find something more suited to your culture, your DNA, and your passions.

Here, I’ll give you one off the top of my head: infrastructure that scales. Amazon Web Services (s amzn) are now generating half a billion dollars in revenue a year, in part thanks to social applications. Yet, if you ask any social application developer if he or she would ever use App Engine, all you get is an earful about not having access to the full machine, not having access to a real database, not having their languages of choice, and so on. Google can be itself and let thousands of social applications bloom by fixing these issues. Google, take a lesson from Microsoft (s msft): Strength comes from developers, developers, developers, developers.

Remember, today’s scrappy team of ragtag developers is tomorrow’s Zynga. In fact, if Google is smart, it should take a page out of  Facebook’s strategy. At a recent Startup2Startup event, Facebook’s corporate development executive (a presenter) was smart, fascinating, and left technical founders seriously interested in Facebook. Others were unmemorable.

This only corroborates what I’ve heard from others and seen in the kind of companies the company has bought in recent times. Google paid $182 million in cash plus $46 million in retention bonuses for 64 Slide employees. In comparison, Facebook bought all these companies for much less money:

What do these companies have in common? They were all tiny teams of skilled engineers that naturally fit into the existing structure of Facebook: Pages, places, photos, chat, etc. The one exception was FriendFeed, which was worth the price just for getting Bret Taylor, now chief technology officer at Facebook.

If Google truly cares about social, it should honestly ask itself why it’s investing in game companies instead of the kind of companies Facebook acquires.

Google, please listen to me now, or perhaps to Slide’s outgoing VP of business development, who recommended you acquire LinkedIn, Twitter, and Quora (and not games!) to overhaul your social strategy. Games are not conversations!

Adam Rifkin is a veteran enterpreneur and web technologist based in San Francisco Bay Area.

Image via flickr user familymwr

52 Responses to “Why Google Has No Game”

  1. Great piece, well-reasoned, and definitely catches the gestalt that is Google these days.

    What I wonder is now that Google has reached the stage where their DNA leaves them unable to simply say, “That’s not our core competency, let’s focus elsewhere” and instead, they think like Microsoft mid-90s, “We’re smart, we can figure out any market,” what that will do to their culture and overall execution as a company.

    Major identity crisis ahead, I think, fully acknowledging that they just might yet win the whole enchilada from Facebook and Apple (although my money remains on this chicanery pushing FB and Apple into a frontal assault against Google).


  2. Bravo! I hate games. True engagement must go beyond Photos and Chatting- requires a context paradigm (opt in, privacy, preferences, geo location, magnetic marketing and more).

    Facebook’s Ads weren’t even close. Fan pages are interesting as a way to monetize from their POV, but again, not close to meeting what B2B really requires. If Google wants to get to that money, they will need to become OEM Bizz Cloud providers allowing Companies to run their own branded Social apps.

    Unlikely however, as they keep trying to add more proprietary tools to the mix. That keeps Google developers happy, but not prospective customers (businesses).

    Facebook then becomes a channel to aggregate and propagate to and from- not the big dream of owning your Corporate Digital/ Social Presence and turning off your web site as others suggest.

    Craig @socialmediawave

  3. You highly underestimate social gaming. The industry is huge and the profit is real. Games remains one of the only ways in which money is being made from social networks. So to dismiss that area for “chat and photos” seems WAY more year 2000 than anything else. I think you’re way off here, and are way behind the curve than you think. Casual gaming is on the rise, and allowing people to play games with each other is one of the best uses of social networks. And that can be done without spamming. It can create much more meaningful shared experiences. Sure, it hasn’t gotten to that level of sophistication yet…but the standards are certainly increasing as the market gets more attention. I think Google knows exactly what they’re doing.

  4. “It’s pretty evident that Old Spice’s social media campaign is the future, but that campaign used Facebook and Twitter to interact with consumers, not YouTube.”

    I enjoyed this article, and agree with most of it, but this statement is factually incorrect. The Old Spice campaign definitely used Youtube. Even your link has a Youtube video embedded. Am I missing something?

    • The videos were on YouTube, but the CONVERSATION was on Facebook and Twitter, not in YouTube’s comments.

      The CONVERSATION is where the brand interacts with consumers, and is the important piece that Google is presently missing.

  5. Some great comments above, especially about the strengths and components that Google already has that could make the building blocks for a first class social application. Facebook is wayy overrated, especially when people talk about it in comparison to Google. FB is just a very successful teenager compared to the billionaire adult Google.

    Having said that, this article also raises some great points. Google should leverage its core strength in order to build up its social strategy. Google’s core strength is in organizing information and making it accessible. While it is organizing the world’s information, it should also help us organize our personal information – everything from our personal communications to our photos and videos, finances, purchases, entertainment media, etc. In short, Google should build a tool that easily consumes and organizes all our personal data, and is as indispensable to our daily lives as GMail and Google search are. THEN, it should give us very well designed, finely tuned, intuitive and easy to use interface for sharing our personal data and information with our friends, family, etc. at varying levels of privacy.

  6. Interactive brand conversations are the future, not games!

    Yet Purina is finding success

    Marketing strategy for games and interactive brand conversations seems like an un-related correlation. However, World of Warcraft, has been used as a case study among scientists and guru’s to see how interactions between people creates..oh let’s say psychological factors.

    These psychological factors, among many other things is what is driving I believe Google into the game industry specifically social games.

    I’m not questioning anything said here as i can’t but i do say keep an open mind about what are the possibilities of games for learning.

    Facebook is a virtual world, Google is virtual tools in a virtual world.

    In the end life is a game. Enjoy! :)

  7. The article is spot on, Facebook are making the right purchases and go into the any dedicated field with the right engineers, the right technical and business outlook and mkae the right decisions for them…maybe not the users.
    Google on the other hand are losing stock value, they purchase the wrong companies and close them without using the engineers skills.
    Google may make money but their advertising model is aging and cannot compete with Facebooks ad personalisation.
    Remember Facebook are still new to the web and aren’t open, if they had an open web policy and did actually open a questions and answer service even Google would worry as their SERP’s would be dominated by Facebook.

  8. I think this is an excellent article with many valid points. However, here are some thoughts:

    We still don’t know if Google is truly developing a social “games” strategy or a social “applications” strategy. While the investment in Zynga would lead you to believe games, the Slide acquisition seems more about social apps. Superpoke and TopFriends are more apps than games. The Jambool acquisition and facial recognition tech acquisition could point to more of an enhanced way to search, discover and interact with friends through advanced social applications, tricking out your avatar, sending more meaningful digital gifts and experiences, etc.
    Don’t sleep on social games. NPD Group just released data that shows almost 60 million americans have played a social game in the past three months. That’s just the US. Consider Europe and the Pacific Rim (where all the major social gaming companies are now rushing to set up shop). These “silly” games as someone put it are very useful tools to engage consumers with. Disney’s acquisition of Playdom seems much less ludicrous when you consider the massive amount of branded content they will be bringing to the 500 million strong Facebook platform. Imagine when they unleash games that include all of the familiar Disney and Marvel Universe characters. They will be able to sell virtual goods to outfit these avatars that gamers will use. FarmVille and Sorrority Life may have tapped into a new market of (women) gamers but this whole social gaming thing is still in the first inning. There’s an ungodly amount of money pouring into the industry and the gold rush to be the next Zynga means innovation and more interesting things to come. Games not only are conversations, they are conversation starters. They also are method to integrate meaningful brand conversations into social community discussions in a tactful way. “I really like your custom Iron Man avatar, are you going to see Iron Man 4?”
    Google has alot of interesting weapons to bring to the social networking table. Maps, Youtube, Gmail, Search, etc, etc. They will be a force to be reckoned with. However, I agree their acquisitions could have been different. I would recommend they look at Tumblr, Twitter, Yelp, FourSquare, Gowall and Angie’s List (who has an amazing subscription model).

  9. I think they get social, but some of the social stuff are simply too dumb and low (spamming) for them. I’m kinda sick of every product out there has some social aspect to it, can I just get a product that’s only about me? not every single thing I do on the internet is about “getting connected” and “share”.

    I wish Google won’t do social at all. I hate spams, I hate “social marketers”, I hate 140 characters wafflers.

  10. Adam,

    That was an excellent, cogent article. The big problem with Google continues to be their affinity to bring on people with similar approaches (e.g. Slide is completely data driven which is good for undertanding viral but not innovation) and alienate those who aren’t even when they are under their own tent (e.g. Blogger team who are now doing Twitter, and Dodgeball guys).

  11. Interesting post. It’s easy to think Google doesn’t “get” social and I’m in that camp myself. I was going to write a blog article myself on how I don’t read anything about OpenSocial anymore, something that Google championed as helping to tie social apps and site together.

    But then it occurred to me that OAuth, another thing they’ve been behind, isn’t doing that badly. Even Facebook has gone that way in favour of the old and purely proprietary Facebook Connect, joining Twitter, LinkedIn and others.

    They are still playing on periphery and have many tools to do something great, but just need to tie it all together into one platform to provide some real competition for Facebook. Because it’s only when we see all their initiatives united in one place that we might all understand just what it is they’re doing.

    Will GoogleMe help us make the connection?

    Ian Hendry
    CEO, WeCanDo.BIZ

  12. I could not disagree more with this view, and I think the relevant question was already listed. “If Google went away and Facebook went away tomorrow, which would you miss more?”

    For me – I would miss neither, but by a narrow margin, I would miss Google more, and here’s why. Google does things with the Internet, on the Internet, to the Internet and for the Internet. Facebook wants to be its own “internet.” That strategy didn’t work for AOL. Facebook is inherently more profitable than AOL because Facebook tries to be its own “internet” without the costs that AOL had in creating its own content.

    Why is Google inherently more valuable? Because Google has enormous data on what people DO, around what people WANT, and around what ultimately inspires people to ACT – essentially Google knows who, what, where, when and to some extent, why people want, what they want, what they do about it, and what causes or inspires them to act – across the entire scope of the Internet. Facebook only has data around what people SAY on Facebook. I think Google’s data is inherently more valuable, more relevant, and I think it will only sap their energy if they chase Facebook. I don’t see any benefit for them.

    Facebook is a mastadon, big, plundering, and at some point, Facebook’s sub-glacial pace and lack of creativity will doom it to extinction.

  13. Some people do play games. There is nothing wrong in google acquiring gaming companies. AppEngine is a flop you say, maybe, but AppEngine came out long after Amazon WebServices, so you need to give it time. Linkedin really appeas vulnerable to me, I am not sure it will survive in another 2 years.
    Facebook growing revenues is good for everybody(doubling from a small base is not impressive, but good) and google trying to compete with facebook is also good for everybody. Nobody needs monopolies.

  14. I was at a party on Saturday with a bunch of current and former Googlers, including my host. In a conversation about Google and games, I commented that Google had historically been weak in social applications. My host laughed, said I was being kind, and agreed that the whole games thing seemed kinda nuts.

    I don’t necessarily agree that photo-sharing and chat are the key to social applications, but I agree that Google hasn’t demonstrated the chops to make anything social on the web. (And apparently so do their employees.) I applaud Google’s willingness to make the experiment, especially after Wave turned out to be a total misfire, but I suspect they won’t go all out with it after the social flops they’ve turned out, and a half-assed effort certainly isn’t going to cut it.

    • raycote

      Wave was a huge misfire that needed more work.

      Waves is to social what the cell is to biology, the ultimate recombinant building block, empowering end users to build custom social graphs with the reach, flexibility and agility that can only emerges from a free form neural-net construction approach.

  15. Some good points but I keep saying that Google needs to really differentiate itself in the social space or risk becoming just a Facebook clone.

    What does Google do best? Search. Integrating social search throughout any new offering would be a big selling point. They have the full weight of their massive search index to throw behind so why not utilise it.

    • Well-said, Kevin.

      If Slide’s engineers are allowed to return to their photosharing roots, I think that would help Google’s social efforts.

      If instead they focus on virtual gaming worlds and virtual currencies? Notsomuch.

  16. Good article, Adam. Google’s position is more fragile than its current profits might suggest. It has monopoly share, but not monopoly switching costs, so a few bad steps, or just unresponsiveness to market changes, could move the needle abruptly.

  17. rohitsift

    clueful post. social-engagement is key – perhaps google focuses too much on the ‘platform’ vs. the behavior on top of such platforms. picasa is clunkily social at best – too much friction for sharing. buzz doesnt even count and i cant think of anything else they have which encourages social/sharing behaviors. i agree they have no game – they are too focused on building the best court.

    • Facebook. I already have email addresses with at least 4 other companies, including the company I work for and I could easily share my new email address with all of my friends and family via facebook. If facebook went down I’d lose the primary way that at least half of my daily personal interactions occur. I have no personal ties to Google.

  18. The problem is that if Facebook shut down today it would not impact on my life in any tangible way. However, if Google shut down, I’d be in deep trouble!

    Google docs- all my files are there now
    Gmail- been using it for years, calendar and contacts are also tied to it
    Chrome browser – absolutely flies
    I have an iphone contract but I think Android is on the same level and it would be an acceptable switch
    Google Search
    Web optimiser! Analytics!

    Is it possible that Google strategy has simply been on core value to users?

  19. Google knows these things already!
    Sure they’re playing catch-up in the social world but they have some fundamental pieces to play with and the rest of those “conversational” systems are being built as we speak (if they haven’t finished them already)…

    The games stuff is simply a side play, Google grabbed a few social game devs to work on some silly social games because the core Google social teams are busy working on those more important “conversational” pieces. Plus with Google’s cash why not buy up some social games to throw in the mix – in the end some people do play those silly games.

    I’m excited to see what Google brings to the social table not because of the recent game company acquisitions but instead because Google has the interest and components to put together a compelling social world, integrated into/with GMail, Buzz, Picasa, Calendar, Profiles, Bookmarks, etc.

    Plus I’m hoping Google will make their social world in an Open way using protocols such as OpenID, OAuth, OStatus, OpenSocial, etc etc. (facebook = anti-open).

    I just think Google probably has a couple people that may have thought about these things already is all.

  20. Great post. It’s always interesting to see which big company aquires which small company, and how they integrate them into their offerings. I’m still eagerly waiting to see what Apple is going to do with iLike (though they just announced a Sept 1st event, possibly announcing their plans?).

    Community Manager | Radian6

  21. Robert Zion

    blah blah blah…yada yada yada, when will these google haters shut up, the huge hullaboo about Android fragmentation still rings in my ears, and now its the No 1 mobile OS. You think Google management has not thought about these issues? Do you even know what they are doing with gaming?

    • Robert,
      I certainly agree with you about being sick of people bashing Google. In my circle of friends I’m known as the Google card carrying fanboy; however, I have to admit I agree with pretty much every point made in this article. Not because I don’t want them to succeed in their jump to the social media scene, but because I really do want to see them make a product that will rise up above. They do need to take this in and really understand it if they don’t already. Big point being in that social games are not going to get them ahead at all. And they should really buy Flickr and use that to really build up Picasa.