The social failings of Google

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Orkut. Used it? I did back in 2002, but since then? No one I know uses it.
Jaiku. Used it? I did back in 2006, but since then? No one I know uses it.
Dodgeball. Used it? I did back in 2006, but since then? No one I know uses it.

These are just a few of the failures Google has had trying to figure out the social space.

Tomorrow they’ve invited a ton of journalists to see a new social effort. The headline on top of Techmeme screams “Twitter killer.”

Um, I’ve learned in life that past behavior is the best predictor of future results.

So, why is Google going to succeed THIS time when its past experiences into social networking have failed and failed miserably?

I’ve identified a few:

1. This time they built everything in house. All the efforts above were purchased companies that were bolted onto existing infrastructure. This time? Look at the foundational pieces that Google has put in place. Google Profiles lets you enter the social networks you’re on. Check out mine, I’ve told it more already about myself than I’ve told Facebook. Then take a look at Google’s Social Circles. Social Circles is a clue that Google is studying ALL social networks, not just Facebook and Twitter. Some of my friends’ entries there have hundreds of websites and social networks listed there. It’ll be very interesting to see what Google does with those tomorrow. Hopefully a feed like FriendFeed had, along with real time search that’s filterable.

2. Employees on board. In 2006 whenever I talked with a Google employee about social stuff like Twitter or Facebook they’d turn their noses and say something derogatory. “That’s lame,” is what I heard over and over. It was clear that the rank and file Google employee just didn’t think Twitter or Facebook would ever challenge Google in any real way. I haven’t heard that attitude for quite a while now. You just have to look at for why.

3. Mobile has made social more important. Look at the average mobile phone ad in the United States. A good percentage of them mention both Twitter and Facebook. Google can’t ignore this fact, especially now that Google is pushing Android on small devices and Chrome OS on bigger ones. Google knows that carriers see social networks as important things to push, so if Google can bring something new and interesting that will get people and brands to even talk about switching from Facebook or Twitter, it will be interesting to watch. Look for Google Contacts to add much better integration with all of the social networks that Google’s Social Circles algorithms are collecting. Yes, Palm got there first, but Palm doesn’t really matter, so look for Google to exploit that fact with really deep integration with contacts.

4. Twitter looks attackable. For the past few months we’ve all been watching Twitter’s engagement, traffic, and new feature releases. So far Twitter just hasn’t stepped up to the plate and lifted the drawbridge off of the moat surrounding their castle. Yes, Twitter is the best place now to find real time news, look at my list of world news brands for a great example of that. It’s also the best place to follow companies in real time, look at Dominic Jones’ list of 499 public companies for a great example of that. But look deeper and you’ll see a limping Twitter. Engagement just hasn’t taken off for a whole lot of reasons (let’s be honest, most people come to Twitter looking for celebrities, but look at Listorious’ list of Twittering celebrities done by Pete Cashmore and you’ll just see mostly lame tweets that don’t hook users much at all). I can see a whole lot of ways to beat Twitter, and if me and others, like Dave Winer can see ways that Twitter is beatable, then so can the engineers at Google.

5. Normal users are hungry. Normal users I talk to have now figured out Facebook. Most have played with Twitter and found it lacking, they tell me, but they are interested in other uses of social networking now. The market is primed for a new service to come along that shows us something new. Will Google deliver that tomorrow? Well, we only have a few hours to wait. But there is a latent unsatisfied interest, especially because Facebook has made its privacy stance confusing with its founder saying that we are in a post privacy world.

6. Location-based services are gathering attention. Well, at least they are being adopted by early adopters and, thanks to deals with TV networks and others, Foursquare, at least, is starting to move out of the early-adopter echo chamber and into the mainstream. Even Yelp has copied Foursquare’s “check in” metaphor and has primed the market for Google to come in and demonstrate some real leadership here. Interesting to note that Google Latitude has largely failed too when compared to the smaller upstarts. Will Google turn around its failures here?

7. Google HAS won in video and done fairly well in blogging. YouTube is a huge adoption success, even if it hasn’t yet made Google much money. That said, most of my friends are noticing that more and more users are coming into YouTube (indeed, even I’ve switched much of my video publishing to my channel there and I’m seeing strong subscriber and engagement growth). While services like Redux or Tweetmeme show you just videos that have been shared on Twitter and Facebook, look for Google to build on this strength.

8. Google has the best email and collaboration suite users. Whenever I speak at a conference of early adopters most people say they are now using Google Mail. That’s huge because these early adopters are the types that are willing to try new things and, better yet, are willing to tell their friends how cool they are. Look at how Google Wave — despite a crappy user interface — became very popular very quickly. Why? Because of this army of early adopters. See, email users are NOT all equal. Next time you are on a plane, look around you. Is the guy who is using Outlook 2003 using anything else that’s bleeding edge? Not very likely. Now look at the Gmail users, they are more likely to have a bleeding edge mobile phone, they are more likely to have a Windows 7 or Macintosh laptop. They are more likely to try things. They are more valuable because of that and is why Yahoo or Microsoft never were really able to capitalize on their hundreds of millions of email customers. Plus, look how Google integrated Docs and Spreadsheets into Gmail. Look for them to do the same thing with their social network efforts. It’ll be nuanced and addictive. If I were Gist or Xobni you bet I’d be worried about what’s coming tomorrow.

Anyway, this is all a long way of me saying that don’t expect Google to keep failing at this social networking thing. Its past behavior is NOT a predictor of what’s coming tomorrow.


38 thoughts on “The social failings of Google

  1. Rob, We at Socialwok ( agrees with point about Google having the best email & collaboration suite out there; 20mil users & 2 mil small medium businesses using Google Apps. The emergence of social feeds as a way to collaborate is why we did Socialwok – social layer for Google Apps. We will be one of the first developers to do integrate with Google's feed social layer. We have been very impressed with the Google teams working on different aspects of Google's products like AppEngine (btw is what Socialwok is built using), Google Apps. We believe this is the key platform to play in. Hence, we brought feed social sharing to Google AppsMingCEO of Socialwok (


  2. Robert, strong well thought post. A couple of things immediately came to mind however. Firstly, what of a possible swell of interest in privacy issues surrounding Google? We've seen recently scant details of deals with the NSA (…) and quite a number of people I know refuse to use Gmail etc due a general 'privacy concern'. Secondly, although I understand what you meant in point 2 about discussing things like Twitter or Facebook in 1996, it'd probably be clearer if written slightly differently. Thanks! Nick Wade


  3. You make a great case, and, Hell, it’s hard to find anyone with as much exposure to “the social” landscape as you possess. But I respectfully disagree.

    G lacks that certain something. They had it in the very beginning (I was there, I was enchanted), but in my humble opinion, they’ve never really harnessed and conquered the sex appeal other companies use with ease.

    I never thought I’d say this, but they way G has evolved (I’m talking product) reminds me of MS.

    G will be fine, they’ll continue to dominate in many arenas, but for some of us G isn’t offering us what we really want.


  4. Great post.Yes, there is a huge potential for Google to make it right this time. They've gathered enough data and member to instantly have a humongous user base, and their products are polished enough to be linked without much effort. They are also really good with their timing, their are anticipating the Facebook fatigue, and going social just before FB launches their email service.One think I have to give them kudos for: they are not afraid of making mistakes, and beside that, every product they launch is targeted at some improvement to their suite -on the long term-.Now I'm just wondering what the FCC will think about it, and how privacy will be handled…


  5. One thing you didn't mention was how much of an empty shell most of the Twitter numbers are. I've read anywhere from 50-75% of the accounts on Twitter are spam or inactive or were never active. Twitter seems the place for bloggers and other thought leaders to hang out, but not for normal folk. Not to mention that we are still getting fail whales. I don't see Google having the same infrastructure issues that Twitter has. I see no reason why Twitter wont be thought of one day like MySpace or Friendster.


  6. Hi Robert,You are assuming that US population is the core of the internet, you are assuming that because you don't use it, it's valueless.There are sites on the Internet that have more success that twitter and that you probably never used… is an example of that, they ported the craigslist model to the rest of the Internet (asia, latin america, eastern europe).Sorry to say, but the rest of the Internet is huge, and it will become far more big than the US… it's about time that you start realizing that…


  7. Robert,While I think you have made a lot of great points, I dont agree with your fundamental assertion that gmail users are more social on face. I think that the adoption curve has brought a lot more tech-savvy people onto gmail, but ultimately i'm unsure whether the line between e-mail being pure utility and a social product has already been blurred. G-mail chat is successful, sure, but so was yahoo messenger and MSN messenger. People said a lot of the same things about mobile until the iphone came along; but the iphone was a re-imagining of the product. I think it will require the same type of invention to bring sociability to e-mail.-Raj


  8. I've said this in the past and I repeat… Google is the cleverest businessman yet! They like taking over competition (or buying it, to be more precise) and they like implementing the best features of the toughest competition in their own stuff. Plus they always wait and watch before they attack. How clever is that? ;)Won't really make me like Google anytime soon.


  9. Another thing: Google's likely to open source this, or at least some portion of it. They tend to like open sourcing their big non-Search projects. Maybe they'll pull another Wave and make it a protocol, to open the door for a decentralized status network that actually gains some traction.


  10. Robert,Great post as always that leads to great discussion. Gist is already working with Google on several fronts, so we are excited to see even more engagement and attention being put behind their efforts to bring “social” to Google, which could/will many different things, everything from status updates (vs. Twitter) to another attempt to do social networks (vs. Facebook) to more on the overall platform (Social Graph ++). At Gist, as you know, we are mostly focused at helping professionals “know more about who they know” and thus we aggregate lots of different contact sources (Outlook, Gmail, LinkedIn, Salesforce, Twitter, Facebook…), prioritize your most important contacts, connect/search lots of different content sources (50,000 news sources, 20M blogs, Twitter, Facebook…) and then deliver a prioritized view of all this content so I can be most informed about the people and companies I am interacting with. In addition, we deliver this value “in-context” inside of Outlook (e.g. “right click on an email or calendar item and get the gist”), Salesforce, iPhone with more platforms coming soon (hint, hint). As Google expands the places where content is aggregated and produced, it is likely good for Gist vs. bad, in the same way Wave is good for Gist (more content from people I care about and a potential messaging platform to extend the value of Gist platform) is today.


  11. killing it lately Robert….I agree the time is ripe for Google to attack social. I do wonder if they have the marketing savvy to entice the mainstream. They are great at attracting the geeks/early adopters but I think they will need to have a real hook to create the sustained viral effect required for a mainstream facebook/twitter success (Twitter really need to come out with some big features this year or I think they'll lose their opportunity)


  12. This explanation might be too simple.

    Google has slowly been moving from pure search to a more content based model but they’re very aware that this is risky. If they own too much content they run the risk of being perceived as pushing their own content in favor of other content using their search engine and other indexing services. This would be a PR disaster for them. They know this and have kept their content experiments relatively small (Orkut etc.) or mostly private (google docs, wave, voice etc.)

    They’re pretty big on social networks. but until know they’ve kept to indexing existing networks. If you fill in your profile right they even provide the option to search within your network right now.

    I’d be surprised if they started their own ‘twitter killer’. It would be more like them to open up the data they collected used it to break open the existing models by providing a standardized api on top of existing networks, they’re already halfway there with opensocial. Many small companies have tried this (remember plaxo?) but I think you need someone big like google to pull this off.


  13. I am doubtful that Google will deliver a service that (a) is as conceptually simple as Twitter and (b) does NOT require them to rethink and re-engineer privacy controls to the point where they will confuse the average user.


  14. Unfair. You said “If I were Gist or xobni, I'd be worried” – But xobni never bothered to integrate with Gmail while SenderOK did (xobni has recently integrated with Blackberry email). So you might have said “If I were SenderOK, I'd be worried”. But we're not because we integrate social media with email across various platforms and we've seen GoogleWave go nowhere so far while, a year ago, Google “Magic Inbox” never appeared. There is every reason to believe Gmail users will need a plug-in from us, especially as we add more social media feeds (keep an eye on us in 2 weeks).What Google can do is work with people like us (or Gist or xobni) to get their Google profile API feed into other forms of email besides Gmail (recognizing email senders and presenting the Google profile).A lot of the power comes from having a photo database – Google needs more people uploading photos to their profiles and then it needs those profiles to be presented, not only to Gmail users who receive emails from the profile owners, but to Outlook email users and Yahoo, Live and even AOL users…not to mention the users of foreign webmail services.And I'm dying to know, what is going to happen with GoogleWave? It wasn't that bad. I liked it as a beta user. But it seemed to never go public.


  15. Well i was just passing by this post and read the title and i can't stop me to read whole post because Google is the most powerful search engine which enables us to search the Web, Usenet, and images. It also include PageRank, caching and translation of results, and an option to find similar pages.And Google fails for all these reasons?Well i will keep looking around for more to get your ex boyfriend back


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