Google: are they getting past their social awkwardness?

An interesting strategic set of moves is underway for Google in the social network arena.

It was just 80 days ago that Google Inc. unveiled Google+, a new service designed to add a layer of social sharing to everything Google does online, with the goal of fundamentally altering the way people interact with the search engine giant’s Web properties.

As the vice-president of product management in charge of Google+, it will be up to Bradley Horowitz and his team to succeed where others have failed; to spur the evolution of Google from a technology powerhouse built from the ashes of the dot-com crash into a staple of online sharing whose influence is spread throughout the social Web.

Bradley Horowitz

At stake is no less than Google’s position as the default start page for billions of users on the Internet.

In a recent article, Matt Hartley wrote:

Despite its friendly image and seemingly boundless technology muscle, in the past, Google has struggled to keep pace with its smaller and younger rivals — primarily Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. — as consumers increasingly look to their friends and the people on their social networks as their primary means of discovering content online.

To ensure its continued dominance atop the pyramid of the Web, Google executives realized the company would need to incorporate social elements into all its offerings, from search and Maps, to News and Gmail, enabling users to connect and share information in new ways.

Unfortunately, Google social track record — which includes successes such as YouTube and Orkut — has been marred by ill-fated blunders, including the failed Wave and Buzz projects.

But now, thanks to the early success of Google+ — more than 25 million users have enrolled in the invitation-only beta — experts are starting to wonder: Has Google finally figured out how to be social?

“We’re not confused about the fact that all of the work really lies ahead of us,” Mr. Horowitz said in an interview.

“We’re just working really hard to solve a whole set of high-class problems that we inherited when the world discovered Google+ and climbed on board so quickly. Things that we had the luxury of time to address are now urgent crises … we’re deadly serious about this project.”

It would be easy enough to portray Google+ as little more than the search engine giant’s reaction to its younger Silicon Valley rivals Facebook and Twitter. It would seem logical to assume that Google saw the popularity of social networks, and the ensuing display advertising dollars that have come pouring in, and decided it wanted a cut of the action.

But to say so would be oversimplifying the importance of a service that stretches across so many properties for a company that generated US$29-billion in advertising revenue last year, primarily from its ubiquitous search engine.

While Google+ mimics many of the features of Facebook and Twitter — including the ability to create friend lists, share photos and post links — Mr. Horowitz maintains that Google’s foray into search isn’t about chasing Facebook, it’s about changing the way the search engine views the Web.

Like just about everything else Google does, Google+, is designed to make search better, teaching it new ways of organizing and understanding information. In this case, Google+ is the lynchpin of the company’s plan to instill in its search engine a coherent notion of “a person.”

Before Google+, whenever someone would type “Steve Jobs” or “John Smith” into Google’s search engine, the complex algorithms running in the background would interpret those words as simply a string of alpha-numeric keystrokes.

“[The search engine] didn’t really understand that ‘John Smith’ was an entity that represented a whole person and that the person had relationships and interests,” Mr. Horowitz said.

“What we hope to do is introduce the notion of people into all that Google does. We believe when we do that we can make better search, we can make better ads, better maps, better YouTube and a better experience across everything when we know who our users are, who they know and what they care about.”

Of course, this isn’t Google’s first foray into the social Web. Over the years, the company has dabbled in social media with mixed results

In March of 2009, Google unveiled Wave, a real-time messaging platform that was designed to “set a new benchmark of interactivity,” according to Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

Wave was supposed to be a re-imagining of email; part instant messenger, part Twitter and part Dropbox. Despite some ardent fans, Wave never captured the attention of the general public and Google shelved the project just over a year after its inception.

Then along came Buzz. In February 2010, Google took the wraps off Buzz, a new link sharing service built with the intention of adding a social layer into the company’s existing Gmail service. With Buzz, users could share status updates, links and photos through a new interface woven into their Gmail accounts.

Unfortunately, Google miscalculated the structure of Buzz and almost immediately after the service was launched, Google found itself at the centre of a firestorm of negative publicity over serious privacy oversights contained in Buzz.

In an interesting twist, Google+ has actually won over many users because of its attention to privacy and security. While Facebook has faced intense criticism from users and privacy watchdogs over the years for the way it handles the personal information of its members and how data is shared with third-party developers.

Meanwhile, one of the central features of Google+ is “Circles,” which allows users to organize their friends into sub groups. Users decide which friends they want to share a link or a photo with, eliminating any confusion about who can see what.

In fact, in its most recent privacy update, Facebook introduced a series of changes to its settings that mimic the structure of Google+.

“We think it’s possible to create online systems that are privacy-considerate and that respect people’s intentions around who sees what,” Mr. Horowitz said. “I think we’ve clearly hit a nerve and part of the reason our product is resonating with people is because this is an unmet need.”

While Mr. Horowitz describes both Buzz and Wave as “learning experiences” he’s also quick to point out that Google is not new to social media and that the company has had some successes in the social media arena in addition to its failures.

Orkut, a social networking site Google launched in 2004, enjoys Facebook-like penetration rates in Brazil and boasts more than 80 million users around the world. Google also operates two of the most visited social sites on the Web: YouTube and Blogger.

What separates Google+ from Google’s past social efforts is that it is designed to integrate with virtually every service Google offers, from Gmail and Google Maps to Google News and Google Finance.

Before Larry Page assumed the role at chief executive at Google in April, individual departments within the company were granted the autonomy to design their products in whatever way best suited their own specific groups of users.

“We were less concerned with acting in the Google user’s interest rather than the Google Maps user or the Google Finance user,” Mr. Horowitz said.

Google+ isn’t merely a defensive move on the part of the Silicon Valley titan, although it bears similarities to Twitter and Facebook, it’s different enough to stand on its own.

“I’m sure Google wishes they had done this earlier,” said Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do? and the forthcoming Public Parts.

“But if Google+ were purely defensive, it would be an imitation of Facebook, which is Orkut, or it would be their imitation of Twitter, which was Buzz. Google+ is different enough to be unique, it’s its own thing. That makes it less of a defensive play, and merely tardy.”

Mr. Jarvis said each of the major social networks has its own strengths; Facebook is about relationships, Twitter is about broadcasting, Tumblr is about quoting, blogs are about writing and Google+ is about sharing.

“The real war that’s going on here between Google and Facebook and a few other players is what I call ‘signal generation,’ ” Mr. Jarvis said.

“Who’s going to be the best at getting us to generate signals about ourselves? The value they get from these signals — who we are, who we’re friends with, what we’re buying, where we’ve been, where we’re going — is that it gives these services the chance to give us relevance; to better target the content service and advertising that they want to serve us.”

Investors, meanwhile, are hungry for information about the revenue-generating potential of Google+. Some Wall Street analysts estimate Google spent as much as US$200-million developing Google+ and are anxious to see the company’s latest creation contribute to Google’s balance sheet. Currently, there are no ads on Google+ and businesses can’t launch their own dedicated pages the way they can with Facebook. However, both situations are likely to change in time.

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