Google has announced a new product called Google Buzz, which represents the company’s latest attempt to hitch its wagon to the popularity of social networking and, more specifically, the growth of social sharing and status updates.
Many will call this a Twitter killer or a threat to Facebook. Certainly the company is targeting the audiences that Twitter and Facebook serve, but suggestions that Buzz will kill them are overblown. From Orkut to Lively to Google Friend Connect and beyond, Google has tried to succeed with social products that just haven’t caught on. There’s no guarantee Google Buzz will be any different.
Google Buzz launches on two fronts, and Google has issued separate announcements for each: one on the Gmail blog and another on the Google Mobile blog. Here’s a quick look at how each one works, as well as more about Google Buzz in general.
Google Buzz In Gmail
Over the next couple days, Gmail users will start to see a new link, “Buzz,” right below the Inbox.
This is where you’ll see updates or Buzz posts from the people you follow. There’s nothing to sign up for or setup. If you use Gmail, you’re automatically following the people you email and chat with the most. Don’t use Gmail or don’t have contact there? We’ll get back to how to manually add people further below in this story.
Photos and videos shared by your contacts show up right in the Buzz interface. You can control who sees your own updates (the world or just your friends), and you can have Buzz display updates from other sites like Twitter, Picasa, Flickr, or Google Reader. Just about all of that is already available in Yahoo’s version of social-meets-email that they announced last June, by the way.
Anything you share has its own URL, so that people can go directly to a particular post. If you mark a post as private, only people authorized by you to see that post can access the URL, and only if they’re signed into Buzz. Public posts, Google says, will be “indexed instantly” and may show up in Google’s real-time search results.
There’s a semi-risky feature that Google has added: Replies to your updates will show up in your Gmail inbox (as live conversations, not as static emails). I say it’s somewhat risky because this is the era of “Inbox zero” and I doubt that many users will want a lot of social chatter clogging up their inboxes.
One more potentially risky feature — one that’s born of Google’s love of algorithms — is that Buzz will also recommend updates/posts from people you don’t follow. Although there’s a “Not Interested” link with each one, this is another feature that may add more clutter than many users are willing to accept.
Google says Buzz will “weed out uninteresting posts from the people you follow,” and also says that it’s working to improve how it recommends the “most relevant conversations.” Also in the works are features specifically for business and education use inside of Google Apps.
Google Buzz In Mobile
Google has also launched a version of Buzz for mobile phones, and in this format it seems to have a more compelling value proposition. It comes in several flavors, or versions, with different access points.
1. Using buzz.google.com in an iPhone or Android-based browser offers more location-based information. So, in addition to seeing and sharing updates with friends, you’ll also be able to see a wider collection of public messages around you, including from people you don’t know, as well as updates that are specifically about a nearby location. This should be available soon after 11am Pacific Time today.
2. Google Maps for mobile offers a “Buzz layer” that shows updates/posts. You can also read or post updates on mobile Place Pages. This is available on Android, Windows Mobile, Symbian, and the iPhone.
3. The Google.com mobile home page has a Buzz icon in the upper right corner that will trigger a posting box. This also should be available after 11am today.
4. A voice shortcut lets users post updates without having to type. This is available in the quick search widget on Android and in the Google Mobile App on iPhones.
Buzz’s Foursquare-Like Nature & Google Places Pages
Foursquare is a location-based social sharing service that is growing in popularity. It allows people to locate where they are in relation to a business or place, then share that location — along with a short message if they like — with friends. They can also share tips about a particular place. Gowalla is a similar service, and Yelp recently adopted Fourquare-like features.
Buzz offers similar features. Those using their mobile phones to access the service can easily locate a particular “place” that’s nearby. Then when they post a Buzz update, their location will also be sent. They effectively “check in” to a place by making a comment.
Places in Buzz are linked to Google Place Pages that launched last September and which have steadily gained new features such as local reviews over time. (See our Google Place Pages archive for more background.) This means any post about a place made in Buzz will show up in a new area on Places Pages.
There is an option to hide your location, though that has to be selected manually. By default, Buzz tries to link your comments to a place. Unlike Foursquare, there’s no game element to Buzz. No one gets to be made “mayor” of a particular place, at least not yet.
Google Profile Pages & Adding Followers
All your public activity on Buzz will be visible through your Google Profile Page. People can access a feed of what you’ve been saying and see those you follow and are following, if you choose to share that. Yahoo already offers something similar.
Profile pages are also another way people can add those they wish to follow. Shortly, they should have a new option to follow someone on Buzz.
What if you want to add a lot of friends quickly but don’t use Gmail, so may lack the automatic network building it provides for Buzz users?
Ideally, you’d want to be able to import people you follow from other social networks, like Twitter. That’s not possible yet, but it might come.
Similarly, for those with existing Google Profiles, it already mines the public web to build out a social circle for you (see Google Social Search Goes Live, Adds New Features). But right now, there’s no way to import that public network and leverage it to link you to others in your network who have profile pages. That’s something else that Google says may come.
Use Gmail but through your own domain, on Google Apps? That’s another place where Google says support will come. In the meantime, you can export your contacts from your mail account and import them into a Gmail account linked to a Google Profile.
How About A Buzz Client? How About Buzz Sans Gmail?
Many people participate in Twitter off the site itself, through third-party software clients on their desktop like Seesmic or Tweetdeck. Will Buzz provide a way for software makers to add Buzz to products like these? Yes, Google says — that type of functionality should be available in a few weeks.
What about those who just want to use Buzz on its own, on the web, rather than having it be part of Gmail. That’s also something that may come, Google says.
Gmail certainly has its share of dedicated, hardcore users — people who have Gmail set as their home page and keep it open all day in a separate browser tab. But do these users want social networking to invade their inbox? We’re all familiar with the challenge of separating work time — which almost always involves email — from “social time,” and Google is taking somewhat of a risk by combining the two with Buzz.
As I said above, I don’t see this as a Twitter or Facebook-killer. If anything, it seems like an attempt for Google to keep some of its own users from bothering to try Facebook or Twitter if they haven’t done so already — and it may succeed to some degree in that way. But I don’t see anything so new and innovative here that existing Facebook or Twitter users will be compelled to switch.
Postscript From Danny Sullivan: I’ll add that while Buzz is clearly aimed at competing with Twitter and Facebook, Google’s at pains to stress that they see Buzz as essential to Google’s “organizing the world’s information” goal.
“The stream has become a torrent,” Bradley Horowitz, vice president of product management at Google, told me when we talked about Buzz. “This is not something we’re jumping on for the moment. It’s core to achieving our mission.”
Much like web pages became overwhelming, and where human categorization of them couldn’t keep up and got replaced by search algorithms, so Google sees social connections becoming overwhelming. That there is valuable information being shared socially, and Google’s job is to help people feel that’s organized.
Certainly Buzz allows Google to start having people create content within its own area, saving it from having to make deals with Twitter & Facebook (see Google Social Search Is Coming & More On Google-Twitter and Google & Bing’s Unequal Facebook Status Update Deals).
To me, the biggest challenge Buzz seems to face so far is that feels disorganized. It integrates with some Google products; it doesn’t integrate with others. It seems like an incomplete patchwork — plus it doesn’t really live yet as its own standalone product.
Of course, Horowitz was clear that Buzz is a starting point, a product they wanted to get out now, to mature it with public feedback.
I’ll have more thoughts on the product in a few days, after I’ve had a chance to play with it more.