Commentary

Google Social Network Is Not a Social Network

Magritte does Facebook Lately social media seems to lend itself to strange, Zen-like denials of apparently obvious truths. In September we found out that Twitter isn't a social network, according to Kevin Thau, the site's vice-president for business and corporate development. Now Google has formulated its own paradox to instruct and bewilder. Responding to questions from reporters at the Monaco Media Forum about its rumored social media push to compete with Facebook, Hugo Barra, Google's head of mobile product development said: "We're not working on a social network platform that's just going to be another social network platform."

Now just, like, think about that, man. Parsing the statement, Barra obviously intended to convey that it won't just be a knockoff of Facebook, which would surely fail -- since Facebook already fills the demand for Facebook, by existing. So far, so good. But this (and similar oracular proclamations from CEO Eric Schmidt) would seem to beg the question: can something unlike Facebook compete with Facebook effectively?

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No one argues with the notion that Google is preparing its social thing, whatever form it may take, to take back Internet market share from Facebook. But I'm still not quite clear on how this market share is defined. It's obviously not in terms of revenue, since Google appears to be making more money than ever, recession and Facebook's wild popularity notwithstanding. Indeed, Google's total revenues came to $20.9 billion in the first three quarters of 2010, compared to $17 billion in the first three quarters of 2009. In other words, Google's revenues grew be more than Facebook's total projected 2010 revenues of $1.2-$2 billion.

Google must therefore be defining Internet market share in terms of where people spend the majority of their online time. Here Facebook recently surpassed Google. According to comScore, in August of this year Americans spent 41.1 billion minutes on Facebook, compared to 39.8 billion minutes for Google's network of sites. Although Facebook's domination of Internet usage doesn't currently translate directly into revenue, Google is assuming (probably correctly) it will provide a basis for huge growth in the near future -- facilitated by casual games, new programs like Facebook's Open Graph bringing "Like" buttons to the rest of the Internet, and Places, which plugs Facebook into location-based marketing enabled by smartphones.

Google execs clearly believe all this Facebook activity constitutes a threat, which they must somehow see off to maintain Google's dominant position on the Web. This is despite the fact that Facebook's massive expansion has shown no signs of impinging on Google's growth or profitability, at least so far. However, accepting the possibility that it may begin threatening Google's financial well-being, as Google execs fear, just brings us back to the problem of how Google will define its new social product, and differentiate it from Facebook.

Google currently dominates Internet usage in search, with a substantial, growing presence in email, thanks to Gmail, and mobile, thanks to Android. Its success so far has been based on identifying areas of need: search is the best example, giving ordinary users a way of sorting and dealing with the vastness of the Internet. Its obvious utility for information finding has made it an engine of e-commerce.

On the other hand, Facebook dominates Internet usage in certain very specific (if widely trafficked) areas: at the risk of generalizing, I'm guessing it consists mostly of browsing stranger's profiles, dating, casual games, and chatting with friends online, not necessarily in that order. In short, it is a colossal time-waster, and a very effective one at that.

Not only are Google's structure and position very different from Facebook's, as reflected in the way people use the two sites; I believe Facebook represents a fully-formed online ecosystem, which will be almost impervious to new competition within those narrowly-circumscribed areas of strength. If you're looking to browse stranger's profiles and play casual games with friends, where else would you go besides Facebook -- where all your friends are already concentrated in one convenient place? On the other hand, if a site doesn't allow you to do these kinds of things, how can it compete with Facebook?

Boiling all this down to its essence, it seems to me that Google want to create something new, building on Google's existing assets, which isn't like Facebook, but at the same time succeeds in drawing people away from Facebook. Am I the only person who finds this immediately and impractically paradoxical?

3 comments about "Google Social Network Is Not a Social Network".
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  1. Laurie Sullivan from lauriesullivan, November 12, 2010 at 6:23 p.m.

    Reminds me a little of the near field communications industry whose execs swore up and down they had nothing to do with radio frequency identification technology when all along the rest of the world knew the two technologies are like brothers. And, sorry to disagree with you here, Erik, but I don't believe Google thinks Facebook is a threat. I do believe the three biggest search engines will create an underlying layer called the social network Web. Google has the data it needs to create this structure, but today's services, for one reason or another, don't reflect it.

  2. Eric Broyles from megree, Inc., November 13, 2010 at 9:56 p.m.

    Eerily reminiscent of the Microsoft versus AOL tiffs. Seems like an eternity ago.

  3. Steven Comfort from Namo Media, November 15, 2010 at 6:25 p.m.

    Part of the reason GOOG bought Slide was so the Slide engineers could build social apps across or on top of many of the myriad GOOG properties...

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