How Google can beat Facebook at social

The rumors that Google is creating a Facebook competitor called Google.Me have not been denied. But does Google have to change its own persona to create a social network that can rival the world's largest?

Chris Matyszczyk
4 min read

Google me this.

Can Google go face to face with Facebook? Can it somehow create a social network that will make real people, rather than engineers, leave at the click of a key? What might this nirvana network (and surely "nirvana" would be a far better name that the alleged "Google.Me") look like?

It seems that no one at Google is denying that it is working on something to protect its ad dollars. Um, I mean, something that will bring people together in perfect and private harmony.

And theories are already abounding as to what type of product might the putative Google Me might really be. Will it be something that offers more privacy, more simply?

Will it be a product that allows you, unlike Facebook, to carry your data wherever you wish? Will it even be so daring as to, again unlike Facebook, graciously permit you to delete your account with just a straightforward click or two, with your data automatically being deleted from Google's labyrinth of information boxes in the sky?

Will it, for example, as one Google researcher has already hinted, give you a step forward from having to be one thing to all people, something that Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg deems an article of human faith?

Will it allow you to somehow separate your groups of friends that you can be Bertrand Russell to, say, your work colleagues and Insane Bert the Incorrigible Flirt with the Dirt to those with whom you prefer to socialize?

There are already those who believe that Google has little chance of overcoming Facebook.

For example, Craig Dos Santos, head of Mobile Gaming at Playdom, told Business Insider: "Google tends to excel at projects that are, at their core, hard technical challenges, not product challenges. Building a social network needs more product expertise at it's core."

Facebook's Peter Deng offered to the same publication that he didn't feel creating a social network sat prettily with Google's mission of "organizing the world's information and making it universally accessible through search."

Deng suggested that "these big guys" have too much baggage. But he also said something very pure and true: "Social networking is very human."

Perhaps that seems like something so obvious that it is as if Deng revealed that the wind is windy. Yet one thing Facebook has done quite brilliantly is design pages that are visually inviting and immediately feel very human.

Your Facebook home page might have a lot of information on it, but the way it is laid out is extremely relaxed. No colors vie for your attention like the overbearingly brainy child in class. No large type invades your eyes like an interrogator's lamp.

The first thing that strikes you when you go to your Facebook home page is the people with whom you have a connection. Their names, their words, their faces, their shaggy doggies, their pudgy babies, and their nights on the town with their new friend from Volgograd. None of them shouts. All of them are there, quietly chatting, as if there were sitting around a table in your local coffee shop or bar.

For all Zuckerberg's slightly venal insistence that the world would be a shinier, happier place if we all shared more of ourselves, his site's design makes sharing feel extremely inviting.

To see how far Google might have to come, I wandered along to Orkut, something I had never done before. Sadly, it looked like, well, any other service from Google. (I have embedded an Orkut video, for the, I'm guessing, millions who haven't seen the product before.)

It's as if someone who finds MySpace tasteful took a look at Facebook and decided "I can do that." The look screams function. The type screams Google. In fact, the whole thing just screams a little too much.

Perhaps the greatest conundrum for the designers of any new social network from Google is that, in order for it to seem more alluring, it should look less like something that comes from Google.

Not that it should look like Facebook, but it should certainly offer a design sense that, the minute people set eyes on it, makes them want to come inside, sit down and feel at ease.

Looks aren't everything, naturally. But many technology companies that elicit an emotional commitment--Apple being the pre-eminent--understand just how much the design effect can affect the involvement that real people are prepared to make.

Facebook, for all its pointless and twisted toying with user privacy, has achieved a level of tasteful, welcoming, and universal design. If Google cannot do that, it will have a considerably harder job of making any single product feature be enough for it to be taken to heart.