Talking tech since 2003

In the vast world that we call the Internet, it seems like there is no field where Google – a company that started out as a simple web indexer – has yet to reach out and grasp upon, usually with great success.  Over the last several years, Google has blossomed to become one of the most influential entities on the Internet, having done everything from revolutionizing “dated” concepts such as email and online communication to grandfathering newer concepts such as cloud computing.  In fact, Google reminds me of that kid from high-school; you know, the one that seemed to be successful at whatever he or she did regardless of how “out there” it was.  The overachiever.

However, if there is one thing that life has taught me it has been that there will never be a single individual (or organization) that is “perfect” at everything.  Everyone and every entity will always have one – if not many – areas where they are lacking and where room for improvement is simply an understatement.  For Internet-giant Google, this area has been social networking.

Don’t get me wrong; Google has tried to make a presence for themselves in the social networking arena.  However, after all of the hype that it received we ultimately ended up waving goodbye to Google Wave; the service that many thought would bring Google up to par with the more “social” communications mechanisms that had made ground on the Internet.  Even Google Buzz – which is still around today – seems to be nothing more than buzz-kill, and has hardly fulfilled the potential that many thought it had.

With social media being the new “in” thing Google needs to shoehorn themselves into the social arena, because if they don’t their online presence and overall relevance will become second-class to more socially driven sites such as Facebook which has already managed to give Google a run for its money.

In the past, I have pointed out that Google’s desire to tap into the social field is blatantly obvious, and have even predicted that the prestige Internet giant had something up their sleeve.  This weekend, however, it seemed imminent that Google was going to announce their own social network – dubbed “Google Circles” – at the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) music and entertainment festival in Texas.  With streams information pouring in from reputable sites such as BusinessInsider and PCWorld, Circles seemed to be all formally announced.

But, just as technology enthusiasts worldwide had accepted the rumors about Circles as a reality, Google dropped a bombshell.  The company wasn’t going to announce Google Circles – or any Google products, for that matter – at SXSW.  This tweet was posted to Google’s official SXSW Twitter stream late yesterday:

We’re not launching any products at#SXSW but we’re doing plenty else. Join us for #H4ckers & 80s dancing today

While this is a huge letdown, the fact that Google has yet to flat-out deny their future in social networking ultimately leads me to believe that Google will indeed be launching Circles (or at least a product/service with a similar concept) later this year; possibly as soon as the I/O event in May.

Snapping back to reality, we must go back to the drawing board and question how Google’s own social network would succeed.  With less than noteworthy outcomes from both Buzz and Wave, Google is now approaching their third strike with social networking, and a strike-out at this stage in the game could have devastating repercussions; not only for Google’s future in social networking, but for Google’s overall company image.  After all, another failure would be damaging to Google’s PR.

Honestly, I think that Google’s tardiness to social networking is easily going to be the biggest bump in their figurative road to success.  Because sites like Facebook have already had such a significant head-start, Google would off-the-bat have to address the challenge of convincing users to abandon their old social services in favor for a Google-built service.  With users having years of accumulated data with current social networks, they would need a reason to justify their switch.

This is where things get tricky.  At its heart, Facebook is already a phenomenal social network.  Not only is the site feature-rich, but Facebook “applications” have the potential to fill in any usability gaps that users may stumble across.  Not being able to sell users on newer, shinier features, Google’s best bet would be to revamp a fundamental component that many feel is lacking in current social networking environments.  Privacy.

Having said this, I have seen a dozen or so friends of mine leave Facebook – at least in partial – because of concerns over privacy.  While I must argue that Facebook already has a wide range of comprehensive privacy settings, the fact still remains that Google could “sell” users on a new social network simply by taking advantage of users privacy concerns.

Perhaps more important, I think that Google will be in an even more interesting position with their rumored social network simply because of the fact that Google is the go-to for not only individual online needs, but the online needs for businesses and organizations as well.  With this in mind, I think that any new social network unveiled by Google will be “workplace friendly” and will integrate features from both “social” sites like Facebook, as well as professional relationship aspects seen in sites like Linkedin.

Last but not least, Google’s execution of a social network needs to be done in such a way that it integrates many of Google’s strongpoints (email, IM, photo sharing, etc) without entirely re-inventing the wheel.  I’d honestly hate to see Google neglect the development of services like Gmail and Picassa simply because a similar service may be available as part of their new social networking site.

So, what should Google focus on with their social network?  What strongpoints will it have and what stands in the way of their success?  Borrowing a term made popular by Facebook; it’s complicated.

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