The world may not need a Google-branded social network along the lines of what Google is reportedly building. My fellow columnist Cathy Taylor made that perfectly clear last week. Yet I can offer a barometer to show whether Google will launch a great product: the more boring Google makes it, the better it will be.
Google excels at boring. Look at the heart of its business model, search advertising. I've worked for companies with strengths in search engine marketing since 2004 and penned over 200 Search Insider columns for MediaPost, and I love search as few on this planet do. Still, Google's take on search, with its character counts and algorithms, doesn't provide great material for a Cannes award submission or a David Fincher movie.
Google has a similar track record with social media. Its most exciting contribution is a site that has contributed to the democratization of video production and distribution: YouTube. Most of what's great about YouTube already existed before Google acquired it, while Google has done well with the "boring" aspects of making it scale and developing revenue streams.
Below are a number of other ways Google has approached social media, grouped by "exciting" and "boring" entries.
Orkut: Google launched its own social network in January 2004 a mere 14 days before Facebook launched, according to the Wikipedia dates. Which would you have bet on succeeding, an independent project at Google or a hobby from some kid in a Harvard dorm room? Google, founded by a couple of grad students who managed to outmaneuver Yahoo and the other 1990s web stalwarts, should have had some algorithm to predict the winner here.
Dodgeball and Jaiku: The former company was ahead of its time, so much that its founder left and created a similar but improved service called Foursquare. The latter was a respected early rival to Twitter back when there were several competitors in the microblogging space. Google acquired them in 2005 and 2007, respectively. Dodgeball was shut down last year, while Quantcast notes Jaiku.com ranks 428,000th of all U.S. websites. Google has had better luck with other acquisitions, such as Blogger (Quantcast rank: 14) and YouTube (rank: 4).
Lively: TechCrunch inaugurated its coverage of this Google baby saying, "Well, this sucks for Second Life." Guess which virtual world is still here. Of anything Google has done with social media, this was the biggest stretch.
Wave: A video called "Google Wave Developer Preview" got over 9 million views, and Soulja Boy doesn't even make a cameo appearance. Wave was supposed to change how people communicate and collaborate, yet I've barely met anyone who knows how to use it or why they should. Despite launching with the kind of fervor usually expressed by audiences watching Steve Jobs or Oprah, the follow-through has underwhelmed.
Buzz: I'll give Google credit here, because thanks to Buzz, my sister gets updates from my blog. As much as I love her, it's a sad day when Google launches a service like this with so much fanfare and my sister is the best example I can come up with for a power user.
Google Docs: Instead of the messianic fanfare around Wave, I can't recall much of that around Docs, though exponentially more people use it. Google Docs started with a pretty dull premise: it would strip out 99% of the functionality of Microsoft Word but store the documents online "in the cloud," and then allow users to collaborate. The power of collaboration for such a straightforward purpose makes Docs so powerful, while the open-ended nature of Wave leaves users wondering what to do with it.
Google Moderator: One of the more underappreciated of Google offerings, Moderator essentially lets anyone create their own version of Digg where others can contribute ideas and vote on submissions. In May, it became a feature on YouTube, where it will be far more impactful. It's still fun to use on its own, such as when I solicited votes on questions to ask Google's Dylan Casey at a conference session on the real-time web.
Android photo sharing: When I started using the newest iPhone, I was wondering if Apple would copy one of my favorite features from Google Android, where you can easily share any photo on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere from the photo itself. Apple still doesn't offer this. Having social sharing built into Android's operating system in subtle ways like this gives a glimpse into how deeply Google can understand and apply the mechanics of social media. Fittingly, features like this tend to be rarely discussed, relegated to the "boring" bucket, while the discussion focuses on screen resolution, battery life, and megapixels.
The odds aren't great for Google to build a new competitive social network. Yet look at what Google already has. It runs a successful web browser (Chrome) and mobile operating system that are used to access every social network. It offers collaboration and communication tools such as Docs, Gmail, Google Talk, and Google Voice. It acquired two social media properties that rank among the top 20 U.S. websites. It also increasingly incorporates social content and experiences into its search engine.
Maybe none of this is as exciting as Google launching a social network to rival Facebook, or Buzz as a Twitter killer, or Lively as a Second Life killer. That's not where Google's magic is. Perk up as soon as you get a hint of Google doing something unbearably boring -- it may change how you consume media, share content, and communicate with others.