Update: Building a Facebook killer no easy task for Google

Google has pieces of the social networking puzzle, but faces the challenge of glueing them together into a distinctive user experience if it is to one-up Facebook

Hearsay in recent days that Google is working hard on a project to better compete against Facebook has captured the attention of industry observers, who wonder what shape this initiative might take and what is its likelihood of success.

After all, Google has several social media sites and services out there, including Gmail's Buzz microblogging component, video sharing site YouTube, photo sharing site Picasa, and blog publishing service Blogger.

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Google also has social networking site Orkut, the OpenSocial tools and platform for social application development, the Docs office document sharing and collaboration suite, the Wave real-time collaboration application, and the social search capabilities of its search engine.

The speculation, while loud and coming separately in online postings from Digg founder Kevin Rose and former Facebook CTO Adam D'Angelo, has yielded few details, and Google is declining to comment.

Thus, it's unclear whether Google will create a brand-new social networking site or consolidate its disparate social media sites, services, and capabilities under a common umbrella, possibly the Google Profiles service, which lets people create a social identity badge.

"Google does take this social media phenomenon very seriously. For the past four years, it has been adding social, community and collaboration layers to its products," said industry analyst Greg Sterling of Sterling Market Intelligence.

Still, Google's Buzz and Orkut don't come close to matching their counterparts, Twitter and Facebook, and that may be the primary motivation behind this reported social networking project it has in development, Sterling said.

In the abstract, it makes sense to try to compete better against Facebook, but accomplishing this goal is far from a slam dunk. Google will have to one-up Facebook with a fresh approach, innovative features, and a distinctive user experience, he said.

"This is an enormous creative challenge," Sterling said.

Ironically, Facebook, as the dominant social networking player, has the same position in its market as Google does in search, where competitors have tried desperately for years to create a better search engine and unseat Google from its throne, to no avail, he said.

"Emulating the functionality and the look and feel of the main player isn't enough. If this is modeled after Facebook, it will fail without question," Sterling said.

In its climb to the top of the social networking mountain, Facebook has passed up many other competitors in addition to MySpace and Orkut: Yahoo closed Yahoo 360 and AOL recently sold Bebo, while others haven't kept up, such as Microsoft's MSN Spaces and Friendster.

Jeremiah Owyang, an analyst with Altimeter Group, isn't surprised to hear that Google is worried about Facebook, which in a few years has gone from a MySpace contender to one of the world's most popular sites.

"Facebook is creating a social inbox with all this content that you and your friends think is of value. Brands wants to be in that inbox and will pay a lot of money to be in there," Owyang said.

Meanwhile, Google has discrete and disconnected pieces of the social networking puzzle. "It has to glue them together," he said.

The good news is that the game is far from over in the social networking market, where room exists for more sites and opportunities for innovation and improvement, said IDC analyst Al Hilwa.

"Today's social networks leave much to be desired in terms of the user interface, the privacy contract with users, and the ability to appeal to multiple scenarios," he said via e-mail.

For example, Facebook isn't designed for career management, while LinkedIn isn't the place to share personal photos, so an opportunity exists for a site where users could pursue activities that they must now go to different sites for, he said.

Likewise, privacy concerns persist so a site could leverage that area if it can come up with privacy controls that offer users an improvement in simplicity and effectiveness over what exists today, Hilwa said.

There is also room for social networking innovation in other areas, like the mobile device experience and in gaming, he said.

"It is not inconceivable to see a transition of a critical mass of users to a new social network in less than eighteen months, especially if a sound set of APIs enable a new set of applications, with the appropriate policies around data use," Hilwa said.

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