Google+ — Don’t call it the Facebook killer (for now)
The search giant has had little luck breaking into the social network game, and most of it has been bad. Buzz got as many yawns as boos, and Wave was inexplicable — so much so that the company killed it last summer.
Orkut is maybe the most successful social network you’ve never heard of — unless you live in India or Brazil.
Indeed, only this month former Google CEO Eric Schmdt described his failure to fully appreciate Facebook’s thunder as his biggest regret. “I clearly knew I had to do something and I failed to do it,” Schmidt told AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher. “CEOs need to take responsibility. I screwed up.”
Social is where it’s at, even for the most successful internet company ever. Ask any successful entrepreneur: if you aren’t already thinking about re-inventing yourself on day one, you’re headed for the dead pool. If you do, maybe — just maybe — you’re IBM.
Google isn’t calling Google + a Facebook killer, as my Wired colleague Steven Levy reveals in his reporting, based on extraordinary insider access for more than a year as the product was developed. Today’s unveiling of a limited public beta is the culmination of work by hundreds of Google engineers and the focus of a very-determined CEO Larry Page.
Instead, the company is portraying Google + as a better Google. This is a good idea for at least two reasons: Google engenders astonishing loyalty, so more of a good thing is better. And Google doesn’t need to set itself up for an even bigger fall if it comes up short against the giant in the social space.
The two have never been easy competitors. Google resents that Facebook will not let it index what goes on behind the closed doors of the world’s largest social network. But any immediate hope for a mutually-beneficial co-existence were derailed last month when it was revealed that Facebook was behind a sloppy whispering campaign whose purpose was to plant stories slamming Google’s commitment to privacy.
Apart from staggering irony the Facebook initiative made it impossible for the two companies — at least at noticeable levels — to figure out how to work together.
The privacy issue is a sideshow, however. The main fight is for your online identity. Facebook has the lead here as well, with “Facebook Connect.” But that advantage is based primarily on the scale they achieved while Google dithered and tripped in the social space. On the internet, nobody owns your fealty.
Google+ will have some obviously-essential features for a social network — a news component called the Stream, a search/alert component called Sparks which will serve up different results on your interests than a plain vanilla Google search. There is also the ability to share with people who aren’t signed up for the service — which addresses the problem of opt-in-itis.
But at first blush the most intriguing aspect of Google+ seems to be the granularity with which you can pigeonhole your friends, acquaintances, family, contacts and whomever into the exact right slot in your social web. It’s a seemingly obvious problem to solve and one which Facebook hasn’t, perhaps, because it hasn’t seen the need to — “groups” notwithstanding.
Google, on the other hand, sees this as a sort of Holy Grail, and started talking in public almost a year ago about tackling this.
“With Facebook I have 500 friends — my mom’s my friend, my boss is my friend,” Shimrit Ben-Yair, the product manager at Google in charge of the social graph, told Wired.com. “So when I share on Facebook, I overshare. On Twitter, I undershare, because it’s public. If Google hits that spot in the middle, we can revolutionize social interaction.”
The Google+ limited public beta is intended, in part, to avoid a replay of the Buzz fiasco where privacy issues were exposed only when the user base expanded beyond the GooglePlex. It wasn’t really much of a problem — Buzz made public who you often communicated with, unless you turned this “feature” off — but it was enough to eclipse the message, spark a public outcry and a complaint to federal regulators.
We can have none of that as Google aspires to come up with the magic formula that doesn’t raise our privacy hackles, and doesn’t make it hard for us to share just what we want, with whom we want.
Some may consider this alchemy, but it’s a laudable pursuit. Now we just have to see if enough people care and want to trust Google with one more, truly overarching aspect of their digital lives. Because a fifth attempt to crack this code just doesn’t seem plausible.