The founder of Digg, Kevin Rose, tweeted that Google is preparing its own social network, Google Me. Rose deleted that Tweet, leaving some people wondering if he had been forced to retract it. Later, on Leo Laporte’s This Week in Tech, Rose repeated the assertion. Then, SF Weekly and a former Facebook executive also confirmed that their sources had provided the same information.
We don’t normally like to traffic in the rumor business here at 40Tech, but our previous concerns over Facebook’s privacy problems make this one particularly interesting. If this is true, can Google mount a credible challenge to Facebook’s dominance?
Google doesn’t necessarily have a good track record with social networks, or web apps with a social component. Google already runs Orkut, Buzz, and Wave, and all three have been underwhelming. But were any of them really attempts to challenge Facebook? Buzz and Wave weren’t full-blown social networks, and Orkut is an unknown to most people. In fact, it is now operated and managed in Brazil.
If we give Google a "redo," what will it take to mount a credible challenge to Facebook? Here’s our take on what Google needs to cook up in order to have a chance.
Appeal to the Masses with An UnGoogle-Like User Interface
Buzz and Wave, along with many other Google properties, do demonstrate one hurdle Google will need to overcome. Specifically, Google will need to get a clue when it comes to designing an attractive, compelling user interface. Google has a knack for designing web apps that apply to geeks, but leave many users cringing. As a geek, I like Gmail’s spartan interface, but I’m probably in the minority. Google will need to design a system that is both pretty, and easy to use.
Appeal to the Geeks By Respecting Privacy, and Using Open Standards
Tech-savvy users are often early adopters of new technologies and new services, with the rest of the world following their lead. If Google can’t win over those users, then it stands zero chance with the general public.
To win over the tech crowd, Google will need to convince tech-savvy users that privacy matters in its new service. The recent howls of outrage over Facebook’s apparent disregard for user privacy seemed to resonant with the tech crowd, but not with anybody else. And Google has had some recent privacy fiascos of its own, including with Buzz, and with Google Street View.
My take? I trust Google with my information more than I trust Facebook. This isn’t because I attribute altruistic motives to Google. To the contrary, it is because of Google’s business plan. Google’s plan, in its simplest terms, is to get people using the Internet more and more. The more that people use the Internet, and the faster they use it, the more money Google makes.
This contrasts with Facebook’s apparent business model. Facebook’s business plan seems to be about capitalizing on user data. The more you restrict your data on Facebook, the less useful you are to Facebook.
Many tech geeks are also fans of open standards. There is some hope that Google Me will use OpenID, which would be a stark contrast to Facebook’s closed ecosystem. Taking such a step might help to draw in the tech crowd.
Dazzle Everyone With Something Groundbreaking
If Google Me turns out to be Facebook in another wrapper, it will be dead on arrival. Just like Facebook was a big step up from MySpace, Google Me will need to try something new. What that "something" will be is anybody’s guess, but it will need to be compelling, and an attention grabber. If it isn’t, then the status quo (i.e. Facebook) will prevail.
Don’t Be a Wasteland
It’s a catch-22, but people will go where their friends and other people are. All of the above points will need to combine to build some sort of momentum, and draw at least a seed of users to Google Me.
If a new user takes a look at Google Me, and none of his or her friends are there, that user won’t stick around. That is what happened to me with Google Buzz. I liked it, but with one or two exceptions the only people there were the "big players." None of my real life friends were there, with one exception.
Google has its work cut out for it, but the task isn’t impossible. Users have left social networks in the past for greener pastures (remember MySpace?), so it could happen again. And ironically, the presence of Facebook would make it easier for a new social network to spread virally. Would you check out a new service that all of your Facebook friends were praising? But Google won’t make it happen just on name alone.
What Would It Take to Get YOU to Use Google Me?
I know we’ve stated the obvious a bit here, but that’s to get you thinking about what it would take to get YOU to use Google Me, if the service sees the light of day. Let us know in the comments.