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How Google Can Beat Facebook: No, It’s Not on the Web

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A few years ago, Jeff Jarvis, a good friend of mine, published a book called What Would Google Do? When he wrote that book, Google had an aura of invincibility. Fast forward to today: Thanks to Facebook, it doesn’t seem so invincible. The new social web has passed it by. So, the question today is: What should Google do?

I’ve always maintained Google has to play to its strengths – that is, tap into its DNA of being an engineering-driven culture that can leverage its immense infrastructure. It also needs to leverage its existing assets even more, instead of chasing rainbows. In other words, it needs to look at Android and see if it can build a layer of services that get to the very essence of social experience: communication.

However, instead of getting bogged down by the old-fashioned notion of communication – phone calls, emails, instant messages and text messages – it needs to think about interactions. In other words, Google needs to think of a world beyond Google Talk, Google Chat and Google Voice.

To me, interactions are synchronous, are highly personal, are location-aware and allow the sharing of experiences, whether it’s photographs, video streams or simply smiley faces. Interactions are supposed to mimic the feeling of actually being there. Interactions are about enmeshing the virtual with the physical.

In a post earlier, I outlined that with the introduction of its unified Inbox, the constantly changing Facebook had shifted its core value proposition from being a plain vanilla social network to a communication company. Here’s a relevant bit from that post.

Facebook imagined email only as a subset of what is in reality communication. SMS, Chat, Facebook messages, status updates and email is how Zuckerberg sees the world. With the address book under its control, Facebook is now looking to become the “interaction hub” of our post-broadband, always-on lives. Having trained nearly 350 million people to use its stream-based, simple inbox, Facebook has reinvented the “communication” experience. …. Facebook as a service is amazingly effective when it focuses all its attention on what is the second order of friends – people you would like to stay in touch with, but just don’t have enough bandwidth (time) to stay in touch with. Those who matter to you the most are infinitely intimate, and as a result you communicate with them via SMS, IM Chat and voice. So far, this intimate communication has eluded Facebook. The launch of the new social inbox is a first step by Facebook to get a grip on this real world intimacy.

In 2007, I had argued that the real social network in our lives was the address book on our mobile phone. Google has access to real-world intimacy – the mobile phone address book – thanks to Android OS. All it has to do is use that as a lever to facilitate interactions.

In order to understand Google’s interaction-driven social future, one doesn’t have to look far: no further than Apple’s iTunes app store.  As you know, I have switched from BlackBerry to the iPhone, and as a result, I’ve been looking for a BBM replacement, and have been playing around with a score of apps.

In the process of searching for this app, I came across an app called Beluga, which essentially allows me to connect to my friends. And then I can create Pods (essentially Groups) with one or more of my friends. Sort of like what I did on BBM. Except, there’s more to Beluga.

It taps into my social graph (Facebook); it leverages my location, and it allows me to share photos as part of the messaging process. It’s a beautifully designed application that’s very inviting – and the experience is less communication, more interaction.

What’s beautiful about Beluga is it’s as personal and private as you want it to be. It’s just ironic that Beluga was co-founded by three Google engineers — Ben Davenport, Lucy Zhang and Jonathan Perlow — and if you see their bios, it is hardly a surprise that they ended up with an interaction-centric product like Beluga.

Yesterday, I was introduced to a new app called Yobongo, and it comes from a San Francisco startup co-founded by alumni of It’s a good-looking application that leverages your location, allowing you to find people around you and to chat with them. It is at the extreme opposite of Beluga: It’s open, and you can chat with anyone. It is very real-time in nature. Of course, there are other apps like Yobongo: MessageParty, for example!

What’s common between these two apps is their ability for synchronous messaging. This messaging can, in turn, become the under-pinning of what I earlier called interactions.

Ability to interact on an ongoing basis anywhere, any time and sharing everything, from moments to emotions – is what social is all about. From my vantage point, this is what Google should focus on. If not — you know it very well — Facebook will.

App of the Day:

Beluga is a well-designed and simple-to-use mobile app that allows you to create group-based conversations. The app, which works on iOS and Android phones, allows you to sign up via Facebook and creates BlackBerry Messenger-style groups for synchronous messaging with friends. Beluga gives you the option to share your location and photos with your groups. You can invite your contacts via text message or emails. It’s worth downloading and using for private group communications.

What to read on the web:

[wufoo form=”z7m8z1″ username=”gigaom” height=”300″]

42 Responses to “How Google Can Beat Facebook: No, It’s Not on the Web”

  1. Do not count google out i am sure they have something in the works.And i do agree that they have the resource to do it.Time will only tell what the future will hold.All we have to do is wait and see.Like he said he was searching for apps kind of hard to beat the search.

  2. Brad Farlin


    Google needs to focus on search. The more it tries to be “social” the more it loses its value in its foundation.

    It’s like Starbucks trying to be a soda fountain place just because Red Bull came out.

    It risks losing its entire franchise by chasing something it’s not.

    • Disagree.

      Google is relentlessly focused on Search.

      Now, through systems integration (see above reply to Ronald) and Personalised Search, they are able to bring more of the Social elements into Search Results.

      Note the need to be signed in to your Google account though… :-)

  3. I wasn’t aware that google had lost so much of the search business, where it derives most of its revenue from, to Facebook. When did this happen? And when did Facebook’s revenues even approach Google’s – I read they were getting more page views, but last I heard, Google’s revenue was increasing each year by more than Facebook’s annual take.

    So if I’m an advertiser that wants to place an ad on the web, do I want to reach people who are searching for something related to what I am advertising, or would I rather just place ads on pages that will be viewed (the pages, not the ads) by largely unemployed young people with little or no disposable income? And what ad would be worth paying more for?

    All this talk about Facebook beating Google is nonsense. As Schmidt correctly pointed out the other day, it is Microsoft’s Bing that is Google’s competition, not Facebook. Social networking sites represent an opportunity for big web companies like Google to add incremental revenue, but Facebook is not a search engine, and not a threat to Google’s main business. If anybody should be worried about losing ad revenue to Facebook, it is the TV networks who distribute shows that target the same demographics as Facebook.

  4. Adrian Meli

    Interesting thoughts. I think part of the issue as you outlined is that Google has so much intellectual horsepower there they can do pretty much anything they want and come out with a decent product. They have done such a fantastic job with search and Android thus far that it seems like getting distracted by obviously bad ideas like Google’s weak answer to Facebook through Gmail, etc. is missing the forest from the trees. Google owns basic search and it is becoming an increasingly winner take all business. Apple is reindexing the world through apps which has the potential to hurt Google and Facebook is attempting to redefine search into social search and social interactions. It would seem that as you pointed out that if Google not does get serious about social they are enormously exposed long term competitively. It will be interesting to follow these companies as they grow because of their huge hoards of cash. Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Facebook (with its high valuation) can buy anything they want to so it will be an exciting time to start up companies and see what the big guys will pay to gain an advantage in the social space. – Adrian Meli

  5. Why the weekly Goog v. FB post? Or, Android v. Apple, or any of the other fictional battles that permeate tech blogs these days?

    It’s like we’ve been taken over by Fox News pundits during an election cycle.

    Google is one company doing what it does. It does not have to compete with or play in the same space as Facebook. I don’t see Facebook with a mobile OS, Search, image detection, or any other myriad of services (and associated revenue streams) that Google has. Facebook is a great advertising channel, same as AOL was in it’s day.

    Really, this “who’s #1” thing has to cease. It’s tiresome and we expect more from Gigaom (leave these kind of meaningless discussions to the Crunch and Mash crowd).


  6. Interesting piece — Google is definitely in an excellent position to focus on communication.

    A quick correction (in the title, no less!): “Its” should be “It’s.”

  7. Thought provoking piece Om.

    So to answer “What should Google do?”, in addition to the concept of communication and apps that enable it, I feel another aspect Google should focus on is “user engagement” and devices that enable it (Facebook passed Google, Microsoft, Yahoo on this ).

    Android is probably the best thing Goog did lately – that means they can regain user engagement on multiple devices user spend time throughout the day on: Android Phones, Android Tables, Google TV / Android TV.

    If you can get users to spend more & more time on your platform (Android), you win.

  8. Whatsapp is way better than beluga.

    You don’t need to manually add contacts. Whatsapp automagically adds all your friends already on whatsapp. Everything just works. The downside is the groups are limited to 5 people. But you can broadcast a message to whoever you want.


    From what I have seen so far Google just does not understand what users want in a social experience. GOOG is good at the engineering stuff – search engine, algorithms, scalability, browser, mobile OS. It should stick to it’s strengths. Facebook and Apple both have an excellent understanding of what the user wants – and both do a great job of delighting users.

  10. What’s the best thing after innovation … integration.
    What’s needed for integration …. scale
    Does Google have scale besides its engineering power to drive integration? I think so.
    Look at MS Office at that time it came out,who could have driven the integration between Office apps as successful as MS?

    I think we know/believe that productivity has to be rethought for an ever more mobile and interactive workforce. Right now there is a lot of vertical innovation but hardly any horizontal. Do emails belong into a mail app or organized into projects linked to people linked to schedules linked to … With any possible view possible to help me make faster better decisions.
    In other words is the future about generalized apps (spreadsheet, word, powerpoint) or about organization of data/information. Social is just another form of organization in my view and doesn’t make me more productive so far.

  11. google cant beat facebook, google got so many flops when ever he tried to get over facebook, for example google wave which offers all the different things in real time got no success in the market while comparing it with facebook, actually google want to cover the market but he never succeeded.

  12. Actually, if I get you correctly- Google needs to more value add to the way we communicate, rather than focusing only at Facebook.’It’s just one black box mystery- what’s next?. Is it that every communication should end up in Social Media talks these days?

    Really speaking we don’ know. Neither Google nor Facebook. Only thing here is that Facebook appears to be doing things quite correctly at this moment at right time. Perhaps, Google could add Social media to its arsenal in future or just imagine- had Google invented Facebook or improvised Orkut to extent we didn’t bother to switch to Facebook, then? It’s a different story.

    Facebook’s rise is phenomenal. But it’s just beginning. Beating Facebook or Apple is just to early to predict Om.

  13. Caleb, CEO of Yobongo here. We agree that silos of communication are a thing of the past, legacy systems based on pointers to people, rather than centered on the people whom you actually want to communicate with. We think helping people connect more easily with people they might not know is important. Forming new relationships is still too hard.

    • Won't work

      Hmmm.. what you’re trying to do has been tried many times. 20-30 or so lbs chat apps in the app store already? They all turn into porn apps where trolls lurk. So good luck with keeping it open.

  14. Applications are helping everyday lives.I use a BlackBerry smartphone and found some applications to be really helping.Naming some : Dictionary,Calorie Counter,TIME,Thomson Reuters News Pro and Who Is It ?.Some of this applications on my BlackBerry smartphone are really helping me out.Sir,Om.Everytime i read your article i find it perfect,accurate and polished.Nice work sir. :)

  15. Synchronous messaging implies that a message can not be replied to unless it has been delivered. I am sure this is not what you mean. Better is perhaps real-time messaging or if you take into account multimodal comms, call it social communications:

    Google lacks the social capabilities, not the comms. Operators – and they have comms experience – tried the social game and failed miserably.

    What makes you think Google can after Buzz, Wave failure?


  16. Google should seriously work on their social strategy. Orkut, Wave and Buzz have already failed in the past. If they continue to develop such services, Facebook will definitely win the race. With Twitter and Facebook, the communication medium is changing too fast, and Google should understand it to be on the top of competition.

    • Andrew MacDonald

      Stop being an idiot Pankajo13.

      Your clearly seeing something other than the vast majority of other users reading this article. The App is merely a program Om came across in his search for a BBM replacement, and he thought it relevant to this particular story.

      E.G the general idia of Beluga is what Google should be looking at in terms of inspiration.

      Get your facts right before you criticise others work!!

  17. Apps will come and apps will go. Yes, some will make their creators quite some money. I wouldn’t be too carried away by a flashy new app on the horizon. That said, people don’t go to the internet to merely search. As obvious as this may sound, Google needs to overcome it’s self-image that the iconic, plain vanilla search screen has represented. Some of those flashy new apps could serve as an inspiration. But then again, am sure Google is not short of inspiration. They have had “waves” of them. Om, you do hit the nail on the head when you speak about communication. In fact, I think Google voice integration could be key. On hindsight, Google could have easily taken the upper hand (both on the device side and on the web) if they had made their own “facetime”. But well, Newton rightly proclaimed a long while ago that the heavier you are, the slower you move. And Google is heavy.

    • AJ Robins

      Yup, Google’s gotten too heavy, and probably too bureaucratic/political internally.

      Google had its chance, and blew it.

      They could have built the One Real Time Messaging System to Bind All Others, but they didn’t. They could have melded together gmail, google voice, wave, and chat, where it didn’t matter what your recipients were using — email, SMS, IM, or Wave — but they didn’t. They could have used filtering to mute or unmute email, SMS, IM, or Wave conversations, or to prioritize conversations, much like a priority inbox on steroids — but they didn’t. Imagine being able to make a Google Voice call, have it transcribed, and the transcription sent out to your recipients, regardless of what they used: email, IM, SMS, or Wave. Now imagine the replies going back in the opposite direction. Google could have done this, but they didn’t.

      Instead, they threw out Google Wave — an unfinished product — and seemingly expected some magical developer community to finish it for them (seriously, if Google doesn’t have the resources, who does?). While Wave was a technically impressive project, it wasn’t viable as released. However, as part of a unified messaging product, it would have been the killer icing that no one else could have touched. But, Google didn’t do that.

      Throw in location and a bit of social networking — think of your inbox as having “private” areas (like your gmail inbox is today), and areas with varying levels of public access (e.g., messages accessible to close friends, messages accessible to general friends, and messages accessible by the public — this is almost like twitter, but without the silly 140 char limit). (This may seem like information overload, but gmail-like filtering could have sorted and prioritized everything.)

      Sad, really, as to what could have been.

  18. Beluga is really growing, I hope becomes more popular. You have a really convincing argument on how Google can “surpass” Facebook. I really can appreciate your notion of location as a prominent feature for Google to tap into. Great work, look forward to reading more posts from you.—Sebastian