Google’s existing social offerings are scattered, and it will take a focused effort to pull them all together, Spool says. He thinks users will expect nothing less than a spectacular new product from the company. “Google has way too much baggage,” Spool says. While users might forgive a startup social network for lacking features, they’ll want any offering from Google to have full integration with Gmail, Docs, and its other products.
Google already has popular communication tools, and plenty of content being shared on sites like YouTube, Picasa, and Google Reader. It is also involved with OpenSocial, a system for adding third-party applications to social networks, and has FriendConnect, a service that lets websites add social features that allow users to interact with each other and pull in content from social networks.
But Google will have to tread carefully as it tries to gain traction against Facebook. “A social network only works with a social graph in place,” says Spool, referring to the connections between users on a social network site. With Buzz, Google tried to populate its social graph automatically, using links between Gmail users. But the resulting backlash–as users felt their privacy had been violated–shows that Google cannot easily exploit the user data it already holds.
Spool compares Google’s Facebook problem to trying to compete with a popular frat house party. Another group can try to get a better keg and a better band, he says, but if most people are still at the frat house, there’s not much that can be done. Users need a good reason to switch to a new social service. Google may have been hoping that an innovative social service, such as the now-canceled Wave, which offered a completely new approach to online communication and collaboration, could draw users away from Facebook, he notes.
Facebook, meanwhile, has its own problems, and some of these could turn out to be opportunities for Google. Ben Gross, an expert in online identity, notes that Facebook and other social networks don’t accurately differentiate between people’s social connections, making their social graph information less valuable to users and advertisers. For example, social networks tend to put all of a user’s connections into a single group of “friends,” and expect users to manage complex privacy settings to sort out family, work connections, and bar buddies. “Social network services should not assume that networks are flat, or that people are willing to put in the effort to articulate these networks or that they even want to,” he says.