Google's Social Media Problem: It's Google

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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.

9 comments about "Google's Social Media Problem: It's Google".
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  1. David Howard from mowster, June 30, 2010 at 4:05 p.m.


  2. Patrick Reiter from Haworth Media, June 30, 2010 at 5:14 p.m.

    No mention of or Orkut...

  3. Dana Lancaster from iWin, June 30, 2010 at 5:57 p.m.

    You didn't mention the fleeting second of Google Wave, but who remembers that?

    Great points. about their brand identity crisis. You hit the nail on the head. Google is not only identified with the search engine itself, but it has essentially replaced the term "to search" - a verb synonymous with searching. Google's successful other products - Gmail and Android OS - are not known to users as "Google" so it's easier to break down the barrier of the brand name associated with searching, even as users know the company behind it.

    Would Google be able to create something innovative that addresses untapped user needs in the world of social networking if they dropped the "Google" and developed its own brand for it? Maybe...

  4. Callie O farrell from The Really Simple Partnership, July 1, 2010 at 4:31 a.m.

    I have no trouble associating Google with its suite of apps. I love docs and gmail, still use wave and analytics.

    However I am not as sure that a 'new' Facebook is the answer when people are turning away from the original. Its my thoughts that the next generation will be subject centric groupings - people gathering around a subject or topic rather than around themselves......

  5. Jeremy Williams from Indiana Office of Tourism Development, July 1, 2010 at 7:41 a.m.

    I agree with your overall premise that this foray into a facebook-like social network probably won't go anywhere, just liek Google Wave and Buzz before it. I also think you're right that the general internet public either doesn't know about or doesn't use some of Google's great applications like Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs or Google Reader. I'm guessing that GoogleMe's membership will look very similar to Buzz's, with some early adopters giving it a shot, but not really going too far beyond the early adopters.

    However, I totally disagree with your assessment of Google's Chrome browser. In about 18 months, it's amassed a greater share of browser usership than Safari, which has been around for 7 years. Granted, Safari just recently became available to PC users, but Chrome's fast growth has been quite impressive. The upcoming Firefox 4 even incorporates the "tabs-on-top" feature that Chrome debuted.

    Great article overall!

  6. Eric Scoles from brand cool marketing, July 1, 2010 at 8:50 a.m.

    so... GMail isn't a Google offering?

  7. Jim Petillo from Connective DX, July 1, 2010 at 10:38 a.m.

    Hopefully Google has a better roll-out strategy for this other than "SURPRISE! We signed you up!"

    I'm not really interested in joining yet another social network, with or without my permission.

  8. Larry Sivitz from SearchWrite, July 1, 2010 at 11:19 a.m.

    As has been shown to be the case so many times, "positioning" occurs in the mind of the consumer, not in the best laid plans of the product manager. As you point out, Google occupies the position of a search leader, not a social network, and thus the conceptual leap is not an easy one.

    The This Week in Google (TWIG) podcast posited this line extension might occur vis-a-vis Google Profiles.

    Another idea is a personal domaining strategy. Indeed, the timing of a domaining idea, in particular, is ideal as ICANN prepare to inaugurate new top level custom domains. If a personal profiling and social network can be created around an individual domain name, perhaps .social or .profile, the gateway to a Google Social Network might be formed at an entirely new level, with easy to use, closely guarded privacy controls a first priority, perhaps as part of a non-profit entity as well.

    Such a positioning might supersede any single brand, even one as ominous as Facebook, by weaving one's Personal Status Update and Personal News Feed into the actual fabric of the Web.

  9. Eric Scoles from brand cool marketing, July 1, 2010 at 3:40 p.m.

    There are two fundamental facts about facebook that will be coming into play: one inherent to them, and one of perception.

    The inherent fact: Facebook is greedy.

    The perceptual fact: Facebook is greedy.

    Google still basks in their "don't be evil" goodwill (hokey as that's always seemed to me, it's real). And from a software perspective, Google does "open" better than any other currently-major player. Want to hook up a Google service to via Yahoo Pipes? You can probably make it work, and without violating Google's ToS. Same thing with Facebook? Good luck and watch your wallet.

    This makes a difference.

    If they don't totally screw it up (and 80:20 will probably be as close to good enough here as it usually is elsewhere), Google has a really excellent shot at "making it up in volume", as they'll be poised to leverage an existing advertising network that everybody in the business already understands and consumers have demonstrated that they're comfortable with.

    So, all this FUD over Google is just fashion, as far as I can see. If they've gained no traction six months after launch, I'll start to believe Facebook is (at least temporarily) invincible. Until then, this just smacks of bandwagoning.

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