It’s not Pacquiao vs Mayweather, but its the still the fight everyone is begging to see.
For being the most dominant web heavyweight over the past ten years, few companies have as many resounding failures as Google. With every success the company’s experimentation friendly environment (many engineers are given one day out of the work week to dedicate to individual development projects) has created have come equally brutal misfires. This is the very reason behind the cautious skepticism regarding the explosive rumors that Google is once again making a push into social media.. But this time, allegedly, they mean it. Rather than simply developing a social media side project a la Orkut of Buzz, word is that “Google Me” (a name that will surely change once Google actually acknowledges the project) is receiving engineering priority.
The hype for this struggle writes itself: One a grizzled veteran with title belts but its fair share of defeats. The other a much hyped star coming off a improbable string of victories, and lately showing signs of weakness. But now that Google is apparently getting serious about this street fight with Facebook where will they draw the battle lines, and what can those outside of social media learn about positioning themselves on the web? Will any holds be barred?
The immediate obstacle, one Google must be painfully aware of, is that people don’t just move social networks for quips and giggles. Facebook is for your personal life. LinkedIn for your professional. Twitter is for trends and networking. MySpace is for, in theory, Music and Movies. Where exactly is Google expecting to fit in? If we look at the decline of social media platforms past the reason for each exodus were pretty obvious. Friendster: didn’t allow for the voyeurism/creeping anonymity people needed to really invest their time on other people’s profiles. When users know who is viewing their page, shame leads to users that are less likely to explore others. MySpace: users were given too much freedom regarding the layout of their pages leading to rampant lacks of continuity, site instability, and a generally seedy experience. The MySpace experience quickly turned into the equivalent of clubbing in Tijuana during Spring Break. Although Facebook has a history of making seemingly unpopular updates to their policies and UI they seem to have in retrospect gone on a long streak of making all the right calls. They have done this by both staying nimble to users needs while also knowing when to listen to their users needs.
If Facebook has a weakness right now it is obviously user privacy. Nasty letters from the ACLU don’t usually make it on to most people’s refrigerators. That said, privacy is probably the issue that Google is least trusted to deliver. The issue of mobility between networks though is another area that Google could exploit. As Wired’s Ryan Singel suggested an approach that would allow users to “weave” their social network activity and data through open standards may be their gateway. Think of HootSuite on steroids, lots of steroids. The approach makes a lot of sense; rather than trying to approach from their weakness, they’d in theory approach from their strengths: integration.
One of the keys to Facebook’s early success was its use of previously existing, very strong networks as part of its launch. By using universities they were able to immediately grab a very large body of computer using, young, upwardly mobile members. Google will not have that advantage. What they will have though is a large body of user information and a general web population who are familiar with what social media is. For Google they have the tools to know where the networks exist, but will have to pool them together in a manner that feels as organic as possible.
The web has been absolutely abuzz with recommendations for Google Me. Some have called for a near exact replication of Facebook. Others have warned against throwing all of Google’s others tools into the interface (Wave, Docs, etc…). What may be the most difficult, yet also most important, operative goal is to just keep it simple. Google’s recent projects have become so complex that they are difficult to even describe what they offer. Its about time that Google got in touch with its inner start-up, to that simplicity that makes projects attractive to VCs. If Google Me’s launch comes with a flurry of long winded and vague explanation videos it will surely fail. If it can be described clearly and succinctly in 30 seconds or less, it may just be a success.