Google's Social Media Problem: It's Google
Undeterred by the privacy debacle attending the debut of Google Buzz, Google appears to be preparing another sally into the world of social media, if a number of well-informed online rumormongers are to be believed, beginning with Digg founder Kevin Rose. The new service, which might be named "Google Me" (I'm going to go ahead and make that GoogleMe for Web style points) seems to be positioned as a competitor to Facebook. Because making predictions is always fun, I am going to guess that this new service, whatever its name, goes nowhere. And yes, I actually have reasons for thinking this will be its fate.
First and foremost, it seems clear that Google faces a brand identity problem. Sure it's ubiquitous, but only as the search engine of choice for most Internet users (handling 72.17% of all U.S. searches in May 2010, according to Experian Hitwise). This gives it a great position in the search market, of course -- the basis of its multibillion-dollar business -- but I believe it also binds it almost exclusively to that one specific function. And because of the psychology of Internet behavior, that function is not an effective base for drawing users into other types of service.
Basically, online search is sui generis -- a unique activity that is separate and different from all other online behaviors. Looking elsewhere on the Web, you can see the boundaries of some other activities blurring or overlapping: for example, sending a message on Facebook is kind of like sending an email, so it's not impossible to image that Facebook could "replace" or compete with email marketing (I'm not saying this is actually happening, just offering a hypothetical). By contrast, nothing really resembles search, or vice versa: it's a brief, goal-oriented process that takes place in its own little cognitive cubbyhole. Yes, it can lead to all sorts of other activities, but these can never substitute for search, or the other way around.
All this is to say that Google is Google, and probably fated to remain so. Indeed, the history of Google's attempts to penetrate established online markets outside its core search business doesn't offer up too many blazing success stories (I won't even get into its traditional media forays). For example, just look at its bid to break the Microsoft monopoly in Web browsing: as of May 2010, Google Chrome had achieved penetration of 4.54% in the Web browser market, versus 63.2% for Internet Explorer, 20.38% for Firefox, and 10.43% for Safari, according to Experian Hitwise. A different set of figures from StatsCounter has Internet Explorer at 52%, Firefox at 28.5%, Chrome at 8.97%, and Safari at 8.88%. Accepting that there is some variation in Web measurements, these data generally suggest Google Chrome is still struggling to get traction.
Google does have some major success stories outside the search arena, of course. The company is at its best when it identifies a real need that hasn't been filled and offers users a new, efficient way of accessing or organizing information. A great example is the huge success of the Android operating system, which accounted for 28% of smartphone sales in May, according to research firm NPD. By offering smartphone users more openness than other mobile handset operating systems, Google exec Larry Page said the company reaps benefits including -- you guessed it -- more searches via mobile devices. Meanwhile Gmail has attracted millions of users with its superior functionality and virtually unlimited email storage.
But that just brings us back to the social network issue. Google's various social offerings -- Google Buzz, Google Profiles, and now the rumored GoogleMe -- don't meet the all-important criterion of identifying a real, unfilled need. This will be a big handicap for any service attempting to break into the social network market: after all, my gut feeling is most people don't want to establish and maintain multiple profiles on different social networks that basically do the same thing. On that note, those other networks have built enormous momentum, and already enjoy incredible reach, including an up-and-coming site called Facebook.