Hey Google — being social is not an engineering problem

robot head

In the wake of Google’s launch of Google+, there have been some interesting comments made by a number of former Google staffers — including Paul Adams, the guy primarily responsible for the insight behind “Circles,” one of the key features of Google+ — that indicate the company still sees social networking as fundamentally an engineering problem. While it’s nice that the web giant is paying attention to social behavior at all, can it ever really understand social networks if it only sees them as sources of information for its search algorithms?

Adams, who quit Google to join Facebook just before Google+ was rolled out, has apparently read so many falsehoods and misinterpretations of his departure that he felt compelled to write a blog post correcting the record. Among other things, he describes how Google is blocking the publication of a book he wrote about the thinking behind Circles — which he originally put into a PowerPoint presentation that was widely circulated on Slideshare and elsewhere last year. It isn’t clear why the company doesn’t want Adams to publish the book, which was written with Google’s approval.

Engineering is everything

But what was most interesting to me about Adams’ description of his time at Google was how little attention the company paid to his theories about social networks and how to organize them, which became the fundamental underpinnings of Google+, and arguably the core of whatever competitive advantage the network might have against Facebook and Twitter — neither of which are particularly good at implementing the kind of filtering that Circles allows (although whether enough users really want to make use of these tools remains to be seen). Adams says in his post:

Google is an engineering company, and as a researcher or designer, it’s very difficult to have your voice heard at a strategic level. Ultimately I felt that although my research formed a cornerstone of the Google social strategy, and I had correctly predicted how other products in the market would play out, I wasn’t being listened to when it came to executing that strategy. My peers listened intently, but persuading the leadership was a losing battle. Google values technology, not social science.

You could argue that Adams is just another disgruntled employee who feels he didn’t get enough attention from the boss, but his description of Google’s culture fits perfectly with that described by author Steven Levy in his recent book In The Plex, which is based on years of interviews with Google staffers and executives. As Levy describes over and over again, no argument or business case or venture gets very far in Google unless it is backed up by data, and if it doesn’t have an engineer promoting it, at some point it will almost inevitably fail. This is arguably a fundamental part of why being social simply isn’t in Google’s DNA, as we have pointed out a number of times.

It’s all about the data

Meanwhile, Google’s employee number 59 — Doug Edwards, who was involved in the development of Gmail and some of the company’s other leading features — has also been talking about the company and its culture, in part because he has a book out about it called “I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59.” In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the former Googler talks about the company’s attempts at launching social features, and what they are driven by, and his comments about the motivation behind Google+ is very revealing:

[I]t’s not because they enjoy warm and fuzzy social interaction and they think oh, this would be a really wonderful way to bring our friends together and build a social circle. They look at it and say, “the information created in social networks is extremely important and valuable. If we don’t have access to that information, Google will be less valuable as an information source.” So, I think they take a much more calculated view of the value of the data they cannot get if they do not have a social network that is widely used. I think that scares them.

In other words, as a popular phrase about social networks puts it: “If you’re not paying for it, then you are the product.” Google fundamentally sees something like Google+ as an engine that produces information — data increasingly crucial to its business — and that engine just happens to be powered by people clicking things and sharing things and giving things the “plus one.” When I read comments from people like Edwards or Adams, I picture a Google engineer looking at the users of Google+ as though they were pistons and crankshafts in an internal combustion engine.

Advertising is becoming social too

Adams also hints in his post at the reason why Google has to figure out social behavior: because the future of advertising, and therefore the future of Google, is being rewritten by the social behavior of web users on networks like Twitter and Facebook (and, Google hopes, on Google+). Although many people have assumed that the former Googler would be working on something similar to Circles for Facebook, Adams says that he is working on the advertising side of the social network, because he believes that “the web is being fundamentally rebuilt around people and the world of advertising will fundamentally change because of the emergence of the social web.”

The former Googler is right, as we’ve pointed out before (subscription required). Social signals are playing a larger and larger role in determining what people find and when, and where their attention lies, and Google has to find ways of getting that information and making sense of it — both for search and for search-related advertising, which is the company’s lifeblood.

Facebook and Twitter are both playing hard to get with that information, since they realize it is the core of whatever value they have to offer as well, and therefore the core of their business model. So Google has to find ways of reproducing it somehow, and Google+ is an attempt to do that. Whether the company can engineer its way toward success without ever really understanding how social behavior works, however, remains to be seen. And paying little attention to people like Paul Adams and allowing them to go to a major competitor isn’t a very positive sign.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Steve Jurvetson

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