Google struggles with social skills

When it comes to social networking, Google has made one misstep after another. Now it's formed a 'Social Web Team' to try to straighten things out, once and for all.

Google has decided that its social-networking strategy could use a few more followers.

Perhaps no one did a better job of capturing the Internet from its inception until, say, 2007, than Google. But over the last several years, an explosion in Web content generated by social media has created a new dimension of the Web that Google doesn't control--and sometimes can't even see. Google CEO Eric Schmidt used to think that Google could index the Web by 2300, but he told CNET last year that with the advent of social media, "I'm not even sure it's possible" to capture everything.

Joseph Smarr has been tapped to get Google's social-networking strategy off the ground.
Joseph Smarr has been tapped to get Google's social-networking strategy off the ground. Plaxo

Forces outside of Google are shaping the social-media landscape, and not because Google does not grasp the opportunity but because it has yet to articulate a winning strategy. Fed up with its progress, Google is pushing reset on its social-media efforts in 2010, hiring veterans such as social-media evangelists Chris Messina, Will Norris, and former Plaxo executive Joseph Smarr to lead the new "Social Web Team."

"Google's decided that social is one of its big focuses for 2010, and it's very natural, as the Web is going social," Smarr said in an interview with CNET. "I think there's a super-strong amount of eagerness on behalf of everyone at Google to get some fresh ideas, and figure out how this is all going to play out, and how they can get there faster and better."

But current and former Google employees wonder if a company so devoted to its engineering culture is really a match for the wider world of social networking. A cliche, it may be, but engineers aren't exactly known for their social skills. And social-networking technology is as much about sociology as it is about computer science.

"The challenge with Google is that it isn't in [its engineers'] DNA," said one former employee, who wished to remain anonymous. "It's not that they don't care about [social networking]; they don't even see it. It's almost invisible to them because their worldview is so analytical and so computational."

Smarr admits that social media is "something that Google is very aware that they haven't had a lot of success with in the past." He said it's "kind of a different animal" from what Google does best. "You can't just build a faster supercomputer to get social right, the way Google's been able to do in so many other domains," Smarr elaborated. "There's something very squishy about social stuff...it's not one or two innovations; it's a whole bunch of nurturing and culture and brand."

That's why Google ended up approaching people like Smarr, Messina, and Norris--open-standard and social-Web thinkers who, in Smarr's opinion, "wouldn't otherwise go to big companies."

Google and social

Do you know anybody on Orkut? Unless you live in Brazil, not likely.
Do you know anybody on Orkut? Unless you live in Brazil, not likely. Screenshot by Tom Krazit/CNET

It's not like Google has ignored the advent of social networking and social media.

It has its own social network, Orkut : though that doesn't register on the radar of anyone outside of college-age Brazilians. It has Google Friend Connect, which lets Web publishers take comments and posts from readers by letting them sign in with a public Google Friend Connect account. It developed OpenSocial, Google Profiles, and even Google Wave could be thought of as a gathering place for a community of folks that want to share ideas, videos, and pictures: Facebook Google-style.

However, none of these products have resonated with the public or the developers that build social-networking technology. Facebook's growth continues unabated, with more than 350 million users . Twitter is the darling of the young, smart engineers that Google has always coveted--and, until recently, practically owned.

Plus, some of Google's biggest and most visible blunders have been in the social-networking space. Two of its smaller acquisitions, would-be Twitter competitor Jaiku and location-based network Dodgeball , were shut down amid budget cuts. To rub an extra bit of salt into that wound , one of the founders of Dodgeball--who had left Google on less-than-pleasant terms--revived the concept in the form of GPS-based mobile app Foursquare , which is now one of the hottest start-ups on the VC circuit.

Then Google suffered another social-media blow when its reported attempt to acquire reviews site Yelp , famed for its energetic community of loyalists, fizzled out late last year . Reportedly, it's because Yelp's executives bailed on the deal at the last minute.

Arguably, Google's biggest success in social networking has been YouTube, with which users can create their own channels, gain followers, post comments (of questionable value), and see what their friends are watching. But YouTube, of course, was Google's second-largest acquisition to date. The core of its product, as well as its initial base of mainstream popularity, preceded the Google buy.

Projects like OpenSocial haven't been met with a lot of developer enthusiasm, either.
Projects like OpenSocial haven't been met with a lot of developer enthusiasm, either. Google

Surprisingly little has emerged from inside Google that has had an impact on social networking. Yet Google clearly has to try to figure out this market, should it want to preserve its mantle as the most influential company on the Internet and organize this growing mass of information.

So what is Google doing about it? According to Smarr, who is in his third week at the company's sprawling Mountain View, Calif., campus, it's too early to tell, and it's going to be a long process. In part because the social-media landscape is so prone to rapid change, putting a long-term strategy in place is complicated.

"The cast of characters keeps changing," Smarr said. "When OpenSocial was coming out, Twitter was a tiny little start-up; now Twitter's a big company. Yahoo's priorities continue to shift. MySpace's priorities continue to shift. You've got Foursquare and all these new companies."

Internally, it'll involve shepherding, in addition to product development. And that could take some time too.

"It's a little fuzzy. You've got a bunch of different pockets of people who are all participating," Smarr said. "There [are] all these pockets of enthusiasm everywhere, and they're all trying to figure out how to coordinate what to work on."

 

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