Two things from the weekend suggest Google may be getting more serious about the social networking threat posed by Facebook. TechCrunch had news that Google is going to open up its social data information, while Google Operating System spotted a post that Google may have plans for a new social networking system based out of Google Earth. More about both, how I see it as Google taking what limited data is has as a pressure play on Facebook and some related developments, below.
Google To “Out Open” Facebook On November 5 from TechCrunch covers information apparently leaked from a mini-summit Google is said to have held last week to deal with the "Facebook issue." Says TechCrunch:
The short version: Google will announce a new set of APIs on November 5 that will allow developers to leverage Google’s social graph data. They’ll start with Orkut and iGoogle (Google’s personalized home page), and expand from there to include Gmail, Google Talk and other Google services over time.
On November 5 we’ll likely see third party iGoogle gadgets that leverage Orkut’s social graph information – the most basic implementation of what Google is planning. From there we may see a lot more – such as the ability to pull Orkut data outside of Google and into third party applications via the APIs. And Google is also considering allowing third parties to join the party at the other end of the platform – meaning other social networks (think Bebo, Friendster, Twitter, Digg and thousands of others) to give access to their user data to developers through those same APIs.
We’ll see. As I pointed out in two long comments to the TechCrunch thread, the "social graph" or social networking data that Google has to export doesn’t seem that much, for the moment. First I posted:
I guess Google will have to get some social graph data first. God, I hate that term. But let’s roll with it.
Like no one uses Orkut. No one, not in the US. There’s some data there, but not heaps and loads — nowhere near what Facebook has.
iGoogle social graph data? Um, um — where? I have no iGoogle friends. I have no social graph on iGoogle. Maybe (seriously) I missed some way folks are connected on iGoogle, but I don’t think so. Connection really happens through personalization — if we have similar tabs, we might share similar things, but I’m not actually socially connected to people through iGoogle.
Google Talk? OK, now you’ve got me connected with some people. And we do what shared activities on Google Talk? Like nothing. I mean, we talk.
Gmail? What, you’re going to just open up people I email? OK, going to use my address book. Personally, I never put an address book in Gmail. But if I did, what are you going to do — tell me what others are emailing to each other? That’ll be fun.
I’d love to know more about what you were told, Mike — but it really sounds like Google’s going to try and invent a social graph of its own from scratch, perhaps by pushing Orkut somehow into iGoogle which gets a hell of a lot more usage that Orkut does. But there’s no real social graph to tap into right now at Google that I can see, regardless of Brad being hired and the fun of talking about it.
Ugh, so hate that term. What, we can’t just say social data? Social network? Social connections?
And later added in response to someone else’s comment about my initial post:
Google Reader — what you read is social? Because Google crawled in your brain and figured out who your friends are? It COULD be social, just ain’t right now. You can one way share with others, but Google doesn’t know who those others are. Maybe it does if they subscribe to you through Google’s own systems — but you didn’t give Google any permission for it then to start pulling you socially into someone else’s life (such as with Facebook’s news feed) based on that.
Gmail — Again, connections based on who you email? Heck, where’s my Outlook social graph, then? Yes, Google can see who you are emailing. You really think they’re going to start harvesting that now? I mean, you recall the freakout when Google wanted to show just ads next to your email. Folks are going to sit still for Gmail to making associations and flow what, your Gmail activity? You tell me more of exactly how you think Gmail’s going to be a social app. Gmail, mind you, not your contact book.
Google Talk — Aside from it still not being that widely used (for example, I just asked a pretty wired friend for her IM, and she sent me Yahoo, AIM and MSN — but no Google Talk/Gmail address), again, what social? Facebook has a social graph because you’ve not only explicitly connected with people but you’ve also selected a ton of things you do on Facebook that can be shared with them. What are you doing on Google Talk? Oh, you’re talking. Like now. So you’re going to what, start sharing that you’re talking with — right, you’re already talking. Well, maybe you’ll make it possible that Google has some master social feed of all you do at Google, so then if you’re talking with someone, you can flow that out onto the feed (I’d assume because you explicitly chose to do that). OK, kind of cool. But right now, there is no master Google Talk social connection in place, no graph. You connect with your friends, but Google is not currently showing you how those friends are connected with others. Long story short — sure, opportunity here, but let’s not make it out like this is primetime at all.
Anything you share on their platform? Sure. And again, just as soon as Google puts the infrastructure in place to get all that sharing into a social graph and then figures out where it’s going to flow. That’s not happening by November, not by a long shot. There is no master social graph for them to export. Geez, if they had that, you’d be seeing it in Orkut. Right now, you want Orkut, you have to sign up for it specifically (and have you? Or are you with Facebook? I actually have an Orkut account, a mature one from before the thing even opened to the public. It’s a graveyard compared to Facebook).
From what Mike’s describing, it sounds like they’re going to open Orkut up in the way they already have iGoogle opened up (and funded in part through the gadget grants). Get some cool social things pulling from Orkut into the very popular iGoogle pages, plus let Orkut flow anywhere and tout how “open” it is, and maybe more people will start going into Orkut.
Aside from that, let Gmail and Talk be open not for the social aspect (they don’t have that really, as explained above), but just so that you can say Gmail and Talk can be embedded in apps anywhere. Facebook apps get embedded in, yep — only Facebook. So saying you let your apps go anywhere again makes you sound open and also maybe gives you an edge in being on pages across the web (which, you know, already have all your ads — which now also, conveniently, are being even more promoted inside of apps/gadgets).
Finally, as Mike says, since you’re being all open sounding, that gives you leverage to say other social networks should be open, so that their data can flow into you. That’s handy if you’re Google and freaking out that Facebook seems to have a huge graph in your major market (the US), where you are now behind. Plus, it’s handy when people are feeling kind of all social overloaded and you think there might be a groundswell of support that Facebook should open up.
Heck, if I were Facebook, I’d be sitting over there saying we’ll open up our social graph as soon as you open up your web graph/index. Then you’ll see how open Google is.
As you can see, I’m not a big fan of the term "social graph," which has become the hot concept of the past few weeks. Kudos to Dave Winer for his post this weekend, How to avoid sounding like an monkey, which calls for dumping that term and getting back to just saying "social network" or "social network data."
It is noteworthy that Google has been revitalizing Orkut. Facebook Opens Profiles To Tap Into Google Traffic, While Google Grabs Facebook’s News Feed Idea and Activity Streams & Other Social Nuggets From Leaked Google Video from us earlier this month cover how Orkut has gained an "Activity Feed" akin to Facebook’s news feed. So Orkut indeed might be getting geared up to export whatever is there so far to take on "closed" Facebook.
In addition, Google has been gearing up development of its gadget applications (see Google Gadget Ventures: Get Paid To Develop Google Gadgets). To date, if I recall correctly from past talks with Google, the vast majority of those gadgets still get installed on Google’s own personalized home page, not on pages across the web. But offer up some social networking abilities into them, as well as the ability to carry ads (see last week’s Google Expands Google Gadget Ads For Advertisers Beta), and Google may feel they can slowly take on Facebook as the social network developers feel they should program for.
Now add to the mix renewed rumors that Google might try to leverage its popular Google Earth community into some type of social network or virtual world. We first heard these rumors back in January (see Google To Build Second Life Metaverse On Google Earth In China?). Today, Google Operating System caught wind of a test happening at Arizona State University inviting those into "3D modeling, videogaming" and asking if they have a "virtual avatar" to take part.
The news came out on the Macrumors forum, with this screenshots posted:
Google isn’t mentioned specifically, but the company has links with the university. Of course, it has links with plenty of other universities, some stronger than with ASU. But one question asking if someone has a Gmail account is pretty decent evidence that this is a Google project.
Of course, we also had speculation back in July that Google was testing another social networking project, Socialstream, out of Carnegie-Mellon University. This leads back to the Google taking on Facebook over openness theme, since the project envisioned a type of meta social site bringing in data from everywhere:
Presenting all of a person’s social content in a single site makes it easier for users to keep up-to-date with their contacts by making the process of finding information takes less effort and time. With Socialstream, users no longer have to jump from site to site just to see if or what their contacts have been up to, since all information is easily accessible from a single location….
Socialstream allows users to post content to any participating network. Because of this, it can inherit the ability to handle any type of content: photos, blogs, video, audio, events, and many forms of structured data. By consolidating the controls for publishing in one place, users are free to consider the content of their posts, and only as an afterthought specify the people who should see it and the sites that host it. By consolidating content in one place, Socialstream increases the benefit of commentary and referring posts, and lowers the barriers to participation.
At a time when some worry that Facebook is too closed, the Google rumors make a lot of sense — that by pushing out whatever social information it has now, Google can make a play that all social networks should spill their data, thus robbing Facebook of its most important asset. But as I said in my TechCrunch comments, that type of push will haunt Google when you’ve got search developers asking why it doesn’t open up its massive search index.