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The number of times that Google has failed at delivering a successful ‘social’ product is in danger of rising to an embarrassing degree. Google Wave is no longer actively developed for use; Buzz has experienced low usage, and seems to most to yield little value; Latitude never gained traction like Foursquare has; Orkut (Google’s Facebook like social network) is perhaps its most successful project but can claim little popularity outside of Brazil and India.
Recently the latest attempt to make headlines is ‘+1’, but this is yet to prove itself and opinion is divided on whether it is following a pathway to success.
Social sites have been the ‘big thing’ for a while now. The biggest players have not only demonstrated solid business models, but have also redefined the way people use the web. One of the hottest debates across a range of digital industries is whether Google or Facebook will ‘win the race’. Of course there is no race as such, and there could quite possibly always be a place for both social sharing and algorithm based search, but it is certainly true that Facebook is making inroads into Google’s once comfortably secure kingdom.
The further Facebook’s social graph extends – the more webpages that get intertwined with Facebook’s services and metaweb, the more people will get used to accessing content through Facebook, and relying on some kind of social sharing instead of search.
This goes to the very root of the issue. It is all about users’ expectations and habits. Most people who work in the web understand the principles of user centred design, but this is usually limited to interface design and information architecture. The principles go far deeper than this, and can help to explain why Google is having no joy in the social sphere.
Consider the following thought experiment: You realise that you need to go and buy a common screwdriver, so what is the shop that instantly comes to mind? Most likely a local hardware store, or a big hardware chain. Now imagine that you need to buy some dishcloths. Most likely a local grocery or supermarket chain comes to mind. The fact could well be that the big hardware store sells dishcloths too, and that the supermarket chain also sells screwdrivers, but they aren’t the shops you associate with these kinds of products, because these products aren’t their main business.
The web is an overwhelming environment, and people form habits to help them navigate through it efficiently. The point is not that a habit is objectively efficient, just that it feels efficient within the context of the task a person wants to perform. If someone wants to share a photo with all their friends, or see what links their friends have been enjoying recently, or have a group conversation about an event then she will go to Facebook. It satisfies the need well. We expect to be able to perform these kind of social functions there, and when new social functions come out, such as Facebook Places, it makes sense and can form part of new habits.
When someone wants to do these kind of social things, their expectations and their habits do not lead them in the direction of Google. Google, as a brand, is not even a destination in the same way that Facebook is. For most web users it is a verb; an action. It is not somewhere to spend time, it is an incredibly efficient way to find the places where you want to spend time. This could be a fundamental reason why Google finds it hard to succeed at social products like Facebook, Twitter or FourSquare. The products themselves don’t seem very impressive, but perhaps this is largely due to the fact that they have not had a chance for iterative improvements like Facebook et al., because nobody uses them in the first place.
Of course Google has done incredibly well at a certain kind of social product – the ‘one to one’ (or ‘one to few’) type products of email and IM (instant messaging). Whilst Facebook and Twitter are ‘one to many’ and ‘many to one’ types of products, it is undeniable that a significant amount of social behaviour, including the sharing of content, is still done via email and IM. In fact these may even be more sincere and honest forms of sharing, and therefore more meaningful. Sharing on ‘one to many’ social sites is tainted with the fact that people are very conscious of controlling their public image by way of the content they share. I for one would be far more likely to take a product or service recommendation seriously if it was shared with me by a friend directly over email, than if it was shared with many over Facebook.
Perhaps if Google is to succeed in the social realm it should stop trying to replicate the kind of social worlds created by Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin, and instead focus on enhancing the more intimate worlds of ‘one to one’ communication. Off the top of my head, I can imagine an incredibly useful new feature within Gmail: somewhere I can quickly access and sort all of the links that have ever been included in emails – perhaps pulling in the titles of the pages that are linked to. Contextual advertising could work well here, and a large amount of the linked to sites are bound to have Google’s AdSense advertising on them as well! Google…? Are you listening?