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Has Google really learned that much from Buzz and Jaiku?

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In the 1986 cult sci-fi movie Highlander, the immortals had to kill each other off in order to absorb their opponent’s energy and become the leader of the clan. On Friday, Google took the same approach to its social efforts, nuking a number of different projects — including the ill-fated Buzz network, a service called Jaiku, and the social elements of the iGoogle platform. In a post on Google+, Brad Horowitz said that the company had learned a lot from its efforts but needed to focus its energy more, and it seems obvious that Google+ is to be the only one remaining on the Google battlefield. But has the web giant really learned that much from Buzz and Jaiku?

Like more than a few others who wrote about the news, I confess that I thought Jaiku (which Google bought in 2007) had already gotten the axe a long time ago. The idea of the service was very similar to Twitter and other services that sprang up around the same time, such as Plurk and Pownce: Users could create a stream of personal information that could be shared with others, which was called a Lifestream. There are obvious similarities between that and what Google+ does — and Google+ also appears to be making use of open APIs to connect with other services, which was one of the things that Jaiku did well.

Buzz, meanwhile, was Google’s first big attempt at a social network that would integrate with other services, a kind of follow-up to Wave — which seemed more like a science project than a real service, and never seemed to get much traction with users. While it may have had some interesting elements to it, Buzz was effectively kneecapped by a number of early stumbles such as poorly communicated settings, which many users took as an invasion of privacy — including a woman who had her abusive ex-husband added to her Buzz network automatically, something that seems like a pretty obvious flaw.

Easy lessons: people want to share, but privacy matters

It’s easy to see some of the lessons that Google might have learned from these two experiences: namely, people like to share information with others, the “activity stream” approach is becoming more and more popular, and you should be careful when you are merging two different aspects of people’s lives — their social network and their email network, which aren’t always the same thing. In terms of insights about the social web, however, these conclusions aren’t exactly rocket science.

But other things seem to have escaped the company when it comes to how people use social networks — and more importantly, *why* they use social networks. Google+ may have 40 million users, but as I’ve argued before it still doesn’t seem to have anything compelling that makes it different from Twitter and Facebook and the other social networks that people are already using. Why would they switch and make Google+ their only network? In some ways it is actually worse than these other networks: for example, Twitter doesn’t care what your “real” name is, but Google has spent a lot of time and effort forcing people to use their legal names, and irritated a lot of users in the process.

Is that because Google wants to be social, or is it because the company wants to be able to including being able to sell you things? The existence of Google+ seems to have more to do with the company’s need to harvest the “social signals” that emerge from such networks in order to improve its search and advertising business — and fend off Facebook — than Google’s desire to create a welcoming environment for social sharing. An engineer for the company described not that long ago how Google has no real interest in social networking for its own sake, but saw it as an information-harvesting strategy.

Does Google have an “if we build it, they will come” problem?

Another Google engineer wrote a post earlier this week (one that appears to have been made public accidentally), and took dead aim at the company’s failure to appreciate how platforms — and particularly social platforms — work, and what is required to make them a success. Steve Yegge said that Google suffers from an “if we build it, they will come” approach to designing such services, and tries to give users what it thinks they want, instead of watching what users do and then making it easier for third-party developers to give them what they want. As he put it:

Google+ is a knee-jerk reaction, a study in short-term thinking, predicated on the incorrect notion that Facebook is successful because they built a great product. But that’s not why they are successful. Facebook is successful because they built an entire constellation of products by allowing other people to do the work.

The amount of resources that Google is putting into Google+ is admirable, and it is good to focus on one thing, even if it means beheading other services like Buzz and Jaiku — and CEO Larry Page has made it clear that he wants the network to succeed. But wanting something and having it come true are very different things, and Google could well learn another lesson from Google+: that even if you build it, and it is well-designed from an engineering perspective, people may still not come.

9 Responses to “Has Google really learned that much from Buzz and Jaiku?”

  1. I think Google is right in creating a good product and putting effort into it. The users-decide-the-features thing that worked with Twitter (and apparently Facebook developed that way too; is that what you’re saying?)— that’s not going to make people switch from Google+ to Facebook now that Facebook is monstrous. That would work if Facebook weren’t monstrous and people were trying out this fun thing called Google+ and it grew from there. But that day is probably over: people are going to have to rethink how they grow a social network. They need features first and then people. Now I’m not saying that if they build a good product people will automatically come, but Google should definitely start with building a good product. As for how to get people to come, I have no brilliant ideas on that one.

  2. Kurt Thams

    We are lauding Steve Jobs for *not* listening to customers and giving them what they thought they wanted, but are critical of Google. A variant of the adage that the winners write the history?

  3. Google has several instances of products that’re good, really good and prescient, but somehow don’t blow the market away.
    Google Voice had so much going for it; it could’ve really beaten Siri. Nopes, that didn’t happen.
    Android has so many small faults of design; eventually the market will veer away from it. They are just not seeing the future.
    I doubt Buzz/Jaiku (both could’ve been twitter killers) did anything for them to really learn their mistakes. They saw what Twitter could do but didnt design the product well.
    Google+ is much better and well thought through. But somehow it seems that there’s something Google didn’t think through.
    With Facebook, you’re quite sure that the emphasis is on sharing. For Google’s myriad products, a central focus does not shine through.
    I think in the end this lack of focus will be their undoing.

    • Kyle Lyles

      Google Voice is a free VoIP phone service that is unmatched in the marketplace. I’ve been using it for nearly two years. Free domestic phone service? Love it!

      Are you talking about Google Voice Actions aka Voice Search?

      Voice Search recognition accuracy is 4% higher than Nuance’s that Siri uses. That is a massive difference, much more so than the % appears. Siri is not the speech reco – Apple pays Nuance to develop the speech reco. Google’s Speech reco team is superior to Nuance’s, coming from the original Nuance and their predecessor SRI Int’l. Nuance is actually an amalgamation of several companies bought by ScanSoft, and renamed Nuance when they bought the original Nuance, but the key people left because ScanSoft is hated in the industry.

      Your future vision of where the market will go with Android is hilarious. Are you an Apple fanbois? Sheez, you’re really clueless about what you deign to speak with authority.

  4. I disagree, Facebook was successful because they made a better product then its competition at the time. It sported a better interface, worked faster, and had more useful and interesting features. The interface was better, simple and clean (just like gmail when it came out). It had features people wanted: Tag people in photos, See relationship status, recommend friends. Facebook also marketed itself by going for specific targets that would jump on it, mainly being University bound in the beginning.

    Later on, the addition of games helped gain even more market share, but mostly had people staying on it for longer period of times. I doubt anyone ever joined or joins Facebook, because of the apps built on it.

    Google+ for now I find has done things more polished then Facebook, but it is lacking a lot of features, and does not market itself as well. If they address these, they have a good chance.

  5. Avatar Odin

    google+ is successful as it is. it could have been more successful in terms of people-numbers, but the bottom line is an increase in over-all revenue across google products.

    • Google+ is not a success and Goggles own staff will tell you so. The numbers dont lie. 40 million world wide is a failure. Growth is much too slow. Users dont understand the product. Defaults are all wrong. No stream just for who I choose but frustrating circles which are a one by one selection. Porn to the N’ th degree. Cut and paste not working in comment boxes. Mobile Translator not integrated. No communication with users. No wonder Facebook is keeping its numbers as no one is here to talk with. A great idea done by people who aren’t themselves members yet!