Google gets social

30 June 2011

MOUNTAIN VIEW: Google is rolling out a new social media service, Google+, in a bid to gain ground on Facebook.

Vic Gundotra, Google's SVP, engineering, argued the goal of this platform was to deliver mutual benefits for both the company and its users.

"We want to make Google better by including you, your relationships, and your interests," he said.

"We're in the early days of making the web more social, and there are opportunities for innovation everywhere … We're not going to nail it on our first attempt, but we'll work as long as it takes."

Among the main features of Google+ is Circles, allowing users to sort between their contacts and formally create unique groups of friends.

More specifically, they can select who to share messages, updates and information with, alongside choosing the individuals to exclude.

"Today's online services turn friendship into fast food - wrapping everyone in 'friend' paper - and sharing really suffers," said Gundotra.

"We all define 'friend' and 'family' differently - in our own way, on our own terms - but we lose this nuance online."

Elsewhere, the "Sparks" tool will let netizens build news feeds drawing in content covering topics of interest, while "Hangouts" offer a space for multiple users to appear on webcams at one time.

Regarding mobile phones, people using Google+ can add their location to any post, instantly upload photos and utilise the "Huddle" feature, which sends messages to a "Circle" of friends.

At present, the site is invitation-only and in "field trial", meaning Gundotra warned there might currently be a few "rough edges".

"But online sharing needs a serious re-think, so it's time we got started," he said.

The firm has pursued a range of previous initiatives in this area, including Orkut, Buzz, Groups, Friend Connect and Social Search, witnessing varying degrees of success.

"They've had spectacular failures and embarrassments, like the giant debacle with Buzz, so there's a history of them not getting it straight," Brian Blau, research director at Gartner, said.

Rory Maher, an analyst from Hudson Square Research, suggested Facebook's membership, standing at around 700m people, was becoming increasingly entrenched.

"They're going to have an uphill battle due to Facebook's network effects," he said. "The more users they get, the harder it gets for Google to steal those."

Charlene Li, an analyst at consultancy the Altimeter Group, anticipates Google's latest scheme may pose a noticeable challenge to Facebook.

"[Facebook] can't replicate what Google has," she said.

"Everything in my life is run on Google, and so they have so much more intelligence about who's important in my life. Facebook absolutely has to take this seriously."

Li further stated that the Circles system should give Google one major advantage.

"It's leveraging a big strength," she said.

"They can do friend management so much better than Facebook. I've just completely given up on Facebook, because it's so hard to manage my friends on there."

Josh Bernoff, an analyst at insights provider Forrester, predicted Google could score a minor hit with the most recent addition to its portfolio.

"Instead of coming directly at Facebook, which would be suicidal, I think they've recognised that they have to grow out from a niche," he said.

"The niche here is people who want to be connected with a specific circle or a specific group. In that context this has a chance to be a small success."

Data sourced from Google, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, Reuters; additional content by Warc staff