While Google is still the most visited property on the Web (173 million U.S. visitors in December, according to comScore) compared to Facebook (fourth on the list with 111.8 million visitors), it has never got the social traction that Facebook has garnered so far. This is very clear when you look at growth: Google is up 16% since the previous year, while Facebook is up 105%.
Orkut while it predates Facebook has got little traction outside of Brazil where it has been a resounding success. Also many claim that Google's efforts with Twitter and real-time search are only spamming SERPs (search engine results pages).
So this may turn out to be a smart play to leverage the widely used Gmail service as the foundation of Google's next social endeavor even though many feel that Gmail is not the place for this. But since they have had little traction in social media elsewhere, it is a good starting point, especially since it is opt-in and requires users to fill out a profile to participate.
My guess is that Google hopes that by adding similar features to what users expect at Facebook, they can extract four major outcomes:
1. Extend growth outside of core search business.
2. Increase usage and traction of the non-search products through social features.
3. Finally get momentum in the social network arena.
4. Increase distribution for their core search products.
What specifically was added to Gmail to create this new product? According to Google Buzz product manager, Todd Jackson, there are five key features that define the product:
2. Rich sharing experience (integration with Picasa, Twitter, etc.)
3. Public and private sharing
4. Inbox integration (real-time)
5. Just the good stuff (algorithmic filters)
At a press conference and demo in Mountain View, Calif., Bradley Horowitz, Google's vice president for product management, explained that the key focus of developing this feature set is around the themes of "sharing" and "real-time."
These are all neat features, but are these enough to create true competition against other social networks?
Google will likely need to merge Buzz with Wave and social search in order to truly compete with Facebook. Wave is already fully integrated with Google Docs and has proven collaborative value. Combined, these tools could be very powerful; since Facebook is a closed network and you can't receive email from outside of the network, this may play to Google's favor. There is the potential for Google to create simplicity of location. But the company needs to clarify the products and show how they work together, as there seems to be too much scattered innovation causing market confusion.
There is another major problem, too, which is that Wave does not have widespread adoption. Gmail does, but no one is sure if the combination is enough to create a viable social network worth adopting. That's why pundits theorize that Google would end up migrating Gmail to Gwave. Interestingly enough, the company may have more data from friends' emails that could create a tighter product than what Facebook has. But privacy concerns are holding it back, because Google is playing it safe with customer data.
Nonetheless, what data we do have may indicate the combined Google products could be very appealing to the Gmail user base. According a Rapleaf study on Web mail users published last fall, Gmail users are more connected and younger (nearly 50% are under 25), with more females than other services. Given this, one would think that if these tools are stable and functional, Google has something serious to buzz about here, assuming the company can give consumers a big enough, seamlessly integrated reason to migrate to a new place for info and conversation. If not Buzz, just becomes another way for Gmail users to chat in private with friends. This would be a major loss of potential and quite unfortunate.