Why I Still Believe In Google Me

Google understands Facebook's Achilles heel, and will likely soon move to exploit this weakness with a solution of its own.
Posted September 15, 2010

Mike Elgan

Mike Elgan

Google announced this week that it won't launch a Facebook-killer social network, but would instead add a "social layer" to existing products, right? Well, not so fast.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt said this week that Google intends to add a "social component" to "Google's core products."

He said if Google knows who your friends are, the company can improve search quality. "Everybody has convinced themselves that there's some huge project about to get announced next week. And I can assure you that's not the case," he said.

The consensus emerging from Schmidt's cryptic comments is that Google Me isn't a social network as rumored, but an initiative to add social elements to other Google services. The conceit is that Google's social strategy was a big mystery before, but now Schmidt has told us something we didn't know before.

At least one site even reported the news under the headline: "Eric Schmidt: We're Not Making A Facebook Rival."

Really? He said that?

In fact, Schmidt didn't say anything new at all. Let's break down what Schmidt actually said:

• Google will make existing projects more social.

• Knowing user contacts improves search relevance.

• Google is not going to announce a huge project next week.

Schmidt's "announcement" announced nothing. Google has been socializing services for years. Google Reader has social elements. Gmail has been Buzzified. Google Search has acquired various social elements.

Adding social elements is just what companies do nowadays. Apple even added a social component called Ping to its iTunes music service. That Google plans to do what many other companies are doing -- add social features to existing services -- is something anyone could have guessed.

In fact, if Google were to announce that it would never add any social elements to existing products -- now that would have been truly shocking and unexpected.

Obviously Google is on a mission to improve the quality of search by sucking in contextual data. And obviously social network awareness helps the effort. Everybody already knows that. Even Schmidt said this is "obvious."

Schmidt's statement that Google won't announce a big project next week technical doesn't preclude the possibility that Google will do so week after next.

Most importantly, Schmidt did NOT say Google won't launch a social network to compete directly with Facebook. Yet this is what reporting implies.

We still have every reason to believe Google will launch such a social network. Here's why I still believe in a Google Me social network:

1. Eric Schmidt didn't deny it.

Like any skillful politician, Schmidt's comments were very carefully worded to create the desired impression without lying. No doubt, he wanted to manage Wall Street expectations that Google was about to attempt a Facebook alternative, while making no commitments about such an attempt in the future.

2. Adding a "social component" to online services is even more powerful in combination with a dedicated social network.

As Facebook proved with its deadly combination of walled garden destination site with "Like" buttons sprinkled all over the Internet, the killer strategy is social everywhere combined with a specific destination site.

3. The winning model is a walled garden.

A social layer on top of conventional services is compelling, but many ordinary users want a service that feels like a "private space" to interact with loved ones and friends. Facebook dominates the social scene for a very short list of reasons, and one of these is that it feels closed, which it is, and that it feels private, which it is not.

4. Google believes in the walled garden approach to social networking.

Google does not have a constitutional opposition to a closed social network, as the continued existence, support and improvement of the Orkut social network proves. Google has demonstrated many times, most recently with Wave, that it won't hesitate to kill services that don't achieve the company's objectives. Yet the company has recently overhauled and improved Orkut.

5. Even if Google has decided to not build a social network, they could change their minds.

I believe Google has decided internally to build a Facebook-killer social network site, and will wait until it has all the pieces in place before announcing anything. However, even if I'm wrong about this, there's no reason Google wouldn't change its strategy later. What Google will never do is give up and cede control of the Internet to Facebook.

6. Google knows it has a better vision for a social network.

Google has demonstrated an obsession with Facebook's Achilles heel, which is that Facebook's structure leads users to treat all their many social networks (friends, family, colleagues, etc.) as one. First, Google's top user researchers for Social at Google published slides demonstrating his understanding about Facebook's weakness. Second, the company has updated Orkut to segregate each users' many social networks.

Until this week, the consensus rumor was that Google would launch a Facebook-killer social network called Google Me. And nothing has happened this week to disprove that rumor.

Of course, nobody knows what Google or any company will do in the future. But I still believe in Google Me.

Tags: Facebook, social network, Google, Social Networking Tools, social media

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