Revealing Google’s Stealth Social Network Play

This post was collaboratively written on a wiki by Charlene Li, (who’s cross-posted) who maintains a focus on Leadership Strategy and Jeremiah Owyang, who maintains a focus on Customer Strategy. Together, we’re covering the convergence of emerging technologies at the Altimeter Group.

Google has quietly been launching a social network right under our own chins. No, it’s not about Google extending Orkut, a social networking platform they developed a few years ago, or growing Google groups, or even launching their own version of a Twitter. Instead they’ve been releasing small bits of social networking features, little by little. Previously, we’ve made the case that email is already the largest social network, however Google’s plans go beyond Gmail. First, let’s define what to look for, in order to identify what Google is concocting.

Defining Social Networks
To start with, we define a social network as having three baseline components: 1) A profile that contains a person’s information; 2) The ability for people to connect to each other via those profiles, often called a social graph; and 3) the ability to do something useful or valuable they couldn’t have done otherwise. Features such as discoverability or public access are often cited as social network features, but we believe that the common denominators across most social networks are the three characteristics we listed.

Now that we agree on the definition, we can see that Google is launching each of these features with little fanfare. Let’s break down what’s happening. Google allows people to:

Maintain a Rich Profile. Google recently launched new features called Google profiles which allows users to upload profile pics, include personal information and preferences, and allow it to be discoverable on the web. These are coupled with a Google account such as gmail, and is at the core of these efforts.

Connect and Communicate With Others. Individuals using the Google profiles can connect to each other and share information using a variety of tools, not all of them necessarily social. For example, Gmail and Google Talk contain not just your contacts, but also understand with whom you communicate the most. Google doesn’t explicitly ask if you’re a ‘friend’ or ‘fan’ of someone, but rather, allows people to connect to each other in a variety of communication tools. And most recently, Google launched Google Sidewiki, which allows anyone to add comments to any page on the Web with just a Firefox plug-in.

Centralize Information In A Useful Way. Allowing people to build profiles and communicate with each other isn’t of much value unless it can provide a more useful experience not previously available. Google provides a number of tools like Google Wave, a collaboration tool we’ve started to experiment with, Gtalk instant messanger, and Gmail which rivals Facebook’s newsfeed, chat, and inbox respectively.

Google’s Stealth Threat
The difference between Google and destination social networks like MySpace, Friendster, and Facebook is that Google doesn’t have a specific URL. Instead, it is creating elements that envelope the web, by enabling every online (and mobile) activity to possibly be social one –then running it all on their own centralized platform. Google isn’t going after a frontal, brute force assault on Facebook and the other social networks — it simply can’t win at that game on a global basis. Instead Google is pursuing a softer approach, a zen-like attach much like water flowing around a rock. It is using its strengths — ubiquity and open platforms — to put “social” into every corner of the Web.

This is the stealth threat — that today’s social networks won’t really be losing share to the “Google network”, but rather, that they will become slowly less relevant as EVERYTHING gets social thanks to advances by Google. Their end goal? Google’s social network is designed to exist everywhere –not be centralized in any one location. By the way, two can play at this game and we see Microsoft making similar moves in the future. (Edit: It was pointed out to Charlene that Yahoo! is also making similar moves with its social APIs).

Key Takeaways

  1. Enveloping The Social Web Is Core To Google’s Strategy. This is inline with Google’s traditional strategy of organizing the world’s information –then serving up monetization options around it. Although a few years late to the game, Google’s move is crucial as they already have large amounts of information about what you look for, who you know, and the activities you do. It’s a natural step for them to also organize and make sense of the social and behavioral information that people create. In addition, Google — who already has long term relationships with agencies, brands, and marketers — will be a natural place for companies to look to for advertising and marketing opportunities around social data, rather than new players and start-ups.
  2. Google’s Recent Moves Threaten Incumbent Social Networks. Facebook and other competitors will need to quickly spread it’s Facebook Connect platform and evolve it to something that doesn’t even require APIs or registrations. The challenge with Facebook Connect is it requires the website owner (publisher) and the user to opt-in and allow for content to become social. With Google’s SideWiki, only the users need to opt-in, which will cause adoption to spread must faster. Facebook will need to extend it’s inline browser (surfing the web within the context of or developing their own browser to counter Google’s moves. Facebook’s core conundrum is balancing personal and often private information of its community with the need to expose information in public in order to be relevant in search and eventually advertising.
  3. Despite Privacy Concerns, Users Will Continue To Use Google. Although privacy concerns will continue to be the mainstay of objections, the benefits to the common user will outweigh any critics. We know that people will verbally object to their privacy being an opportunity for another company, yet they continue to behave in a way opposite to their objections. Why? For most, they’ve grown to trust players like Google. Or they are willing to give up control of some information in exchange for convenience, such as having social data conveniently show up on Google Maps on your phone. And for others, the price of privacy can be measured by what information they will give up to get ‘free shipping’. The root concern isn’t broadly about privacy, but specifically about privacy in the context of when you’re not in control of it. Google is highly motivated to maintain the trust of users and will do everything possible to continue earning and deserving that trust.

We’re not the only ones to notice this trend, Search Engine Watch also characterizes Google as a social media company. We hope our viewpoint sheds light to where Google is heading, and hope to hear your viewpoints too.