Google eyes social networking with Orkut

Company seen moving beyond information-gathering niche

Google is edging into the social networking space popularized by Friendster, launching on Thursday a networking site created by one of its engineers.

Orkut.com aims to create friends-of-friends links among its users. "The main goal of our service is to make the social life of yourself and your friends more active and stimulating. The community site allows friends to virtually come together, find common interests, share relevant information, and organize social events," the site says in its mission statement.

Currently available to new users by invitation only, the site went live with several thousand users, mostly Google employees, and an interface similar to those of Friendster, Tribe.net and other social networking sites that have entered the limelight in the past year.

While no one is yet racking up big profits with the sites, the social-networking model is one that intrigues investors and content creators. Should Mountain View, California-based Google adopt Orkut.com permanently, it would be sign that the company is trying to move beyond the information-gathering niche it dominates and into the broader online community-building market. It took a step in that direction early last year by purchasing Blogger.com creator Pyra Labs.

Orkut was created and named by Google engineer Orkut Buyukkokten, a computer scientist with an interest in online communities. Google encourages its engineers to spend one day a week working on personal projects on company time, said spokeswoman Eileen Rodriguez . When the results are interesting, Google tests them out online to see what catches on. Two well-known Google services that officially remain in beta status, Google News and catalog-search service Froogle, came about through the personal-projects policy.

"We want to encourage our engineers to really use their creativity," Rodriguez said.

Orkut.com bills itself as running "in affiliation" with Google. Since it was developed on Google time, Google owns the technology, Rodriguez said, but the site is not an official part of Google's product portfolio. It runs on servers in a non-Google facility, and is maintained by Buyukkokten and his collaborators.

Like Friendster, Orkut.com has users answer a series of questions to create a personal profile, which is then available to a subset of the site's users, depending on which privacy options are selected. Other users in one's personal network are displayed in a grid, and users are encouraged to write testimonials extolling the virtues of their friends.

One testimonial posted for Buyukkokten expresses amusement at the geek approach to socializing that's catching on as networking sites spread: "Orkut would spend weeks coding just to gain new friends. How cool is that?"

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