Rumors that Google is building a new social network have persisted since late June, when Kevin Rose, CEO of Digg.com, posted on Twitter that the Web giant was working on a challenger to Facebook. The company’s recent actions–its reported investment in Zynga, a social gaming company, and its acquisition of Slide, a company that makes various applications for social networks–have fanned the flames.
Google already owns several products that encourage online social interaction–including YouTube, Google Talk, Google Reader, and Blogger. But it has struggled to deliver a successful dedicated social networking service. Its existing social network, Orkut, has far fewer users than Facebook (around 100 million, compared to 500 million), and is mainly popular in Brazil and India. And the launch of Buzz, a social network built into Gmail, was botched after users complained that their privacy had been invaded. Google has acquired several promising social services, including the microblogging site Jaiku and the location service Dodgeball, only to hold back on investing in them.
Some argue that Google has failed to deliver the kind of overall experience people expect from a social network. “Google has never come out with any [social networking product] where the experience drove it,” says Jared Spool, founding principal of User Interface Engineering, a consulting firm based in North Andover, MA. “It was always the technology and the engineering that drove it–the experience was sort-of layered on afterward.”
Spool notes that other failed social offerings from Google, such as Lively, its foray into virtual worlds, and Wave, an experiment in online communication and collaboration, originated as side projects for the company’s engineers. Spool says that it is hard for side projects to be expansive enough to become a fully featured social network.
Nick O’Neill, a social-networking industry expert who runs the blogs The Social Times and All Facebook, says Google is desperate to get more involved in social networking because Facebook is collecting commercially valuable information that Google can’t access.
O’Neill says that sharing content with friends provides important data on users’ interests and behavior–useful both for providing better search results and delivering more effectively targeted advertising. To maintain its dominance in both fields, O’Neill says, Google needs to hone its search results by considering a user’s social connections and the information shared with friends. Google may believe it needs its own social network to get the best social information, he says.