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Is Google launching a new rival to Facebook?

Rumours are flying on the internet that Google is about to go head-to-head with Facebook with a new social network called “Google Me”. If so, then it’s a confrontation that has been a long time coming between the two heavyweights of the modern internet.

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Their rivalry dates back to one of the first big public blows to Google. Back in 2007, the search engine giant was working on a large investment deal to partner with Facebook. But the deal, instead of going to Google, ended up going to Microsoft, who bought 1.6 percent of Facebook with a $240-million investment. Since then, Google and Facebook have outstripped all others as the custodians of internet users. They are the two most popular destinations on the internet, and with the ever increasing likelihood of a near universal log-in for the big sites on the web, these two giants are the only real contenders for the title.

What recent spark has caused this battle of the titans to resurface?

It began with a few whispers about ‘Google Me’, the possible title of Google’s prospective new social network. The rumours started with Kevin Rose’s (Founder of social news website Digg) tweet a few days ago:

“Ok, um, huge rumor: Google to launch Facebook competitor very soon “Google Me”, very credible source”.

Despite being quickly deleted, the story was reinforced by Adam D’Angelo (Founder of Quora and ex-Facebook senior manager) commenting that it is not simply a rumour and that there are, in fact, a large number of people working on it. Google have not commented as yet, so it remains hypothetical, but it does have the internet buzzing with interest. It also certainly shows Facebook’s impact on the web, in that Facebook clearly has Google worried. However, one of the main questions is: “Can this offering compete?”

Google’s forays into social networking thus far have been unimpressive failures. Google Buzz, Wave and Orkut have all fallen far short of expectations. It also seems that Google has become increasingly concerned that it is fast losing its place as the dominant force on the internet.

As Google throws out weak offerings against Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg’s people are slowly building up their system to threaten Google. While Google Ads and Google Search are the current crown jewels of the internet, Facebook envisions offering more personal, local search possibilities which are tied to people’s real identities (think Facebook’s Social Search tied to Open Graph). If you need the doctor, Facebook can find one near you. Want to advertise? Facebook knows exactly who your market is. Facebook has already changed the way people think about the internet, and when everyone is on Facebook, no one can sensibly leave Facebook.

But of course it is far too soon to predict the demise of Google. Firstly, despite Facebook’s overwhelming success, it is still a financial sinkhole. It is yet to turn a profit, while Google, on the other hand, is pulling in billions of dollars in profit thanks to its advertising system.

Secondly, Facebook has had its own major controversy. The mounting concerns over Facebook’s privacy are not to be dismissed lightly, in fact the love/hate relationship that users have with Facebook is one that could have a serious impact on Facebook’s future. As previous examples have shown (think Myspace), Facebook’s massive user-base only goes so far in stopping users from jumping ship. People are fickle, and Google has a better public image.

Despite Google’s Orkut failure to break into North American and European markets, it has found strong support in South America and India, and has been operating successfully for years. With the experience gained from this, coupled with Facebook’s own failings, Google could offer a competitive service. Considering Google’s current user-base, including Gmail and Google profiles, any Google venture already has a large backing.

Current Google users would probably not have to sign up, but could merely accept or refuse the service. If ‘Google Me’ could make proper use of Facebook Connect to transfer profile information from current Facebook users, then Google sits in a relatively good position to become the dominant social networking force.

Unfortunately, we don’t know much about ‘Google Me’ or if it even actually exists. But even if it doesn’t exist right now, the climate is certainly ripe for it. As much as Google offers highly useful free services (Analytics, Google Docs, Trends), most of its recent offerings have not emulated Google’s usual success.

If ‘Google Me’ is real, then it is a pivotal moment in the battle for internet dominance. Google would require a large scale marketing campaign to have any hope of success, yet this could also highly publicise its failure. Facebook has also matured into a real internet business and are likely to respond aggressively to any challenge to their domain.

Only time will tell with this one.

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