Online search leader Google Inc. is taking yet another stab at social networking, as it tries to go up against Facebook in this wildly popular and lucrative segment of the internet.
This time the project is called Google+ and it aims to make online sharing more like real life.
"We think people communicate in very rich ways," said Vic Gundotra, senior vice president of engineering at Google. "The online tools we have to choose from give us very rigid services."
Other social networking tools make selective sharing within small groups difficult. They don't allow for the nuances that people are used to in offline communication and because they call so many acquaintances "friends," said Gundotra in a blog post announcing the service.
Many Facebook users, for instance, find it difficult to limit their status updates to small groups of people so that their coworkers aren't exposed to party photos or their parents aren't privy to flirtatious posts on their "wall." Though Facebook has tried to address this with a much-hyped "Groups" feature, it's not clear how many people use it.
Gundotra's criticism seems aimed squarely at Facebook, the world's largest online social network. Facebook has become synonymous with online sharing since its founding seven years ago.
In a prepared statement, Facebook said only that "we're in the early days of making the web more social, and there are opportunities for innovation everywhere."
Previous attempts flopped
Google, which dominates internet search with a firm hold on two-thirds of the U.S. market, has been experimenting with different social tools since late 2009 with limited success:
- "Buzz" was one major mishap. The product was a social network attached to Google's popular Gmail service, and it wound up exposing email contacts that users did not want to share. Google eventually agreed to submit to independent audits of its privacy controls every other year for the next two decades as part of a Federal Trade Commission settlement.
- Google shut down another attempt at online sharing, Google Wave, last August after unveiling it with much fanfare in 2009. The service, which let users chat, share files and collaborate on documents in real time, didn't gain enough fans.
More than a year in the works, the project Google unveiled Tuesday lets users share things with smaller groups of people through a feature called "Circles." This means only college buddies, say, or your favorite co-workers can see the photos, links our updates that you post. Another feature called "Sparks" aims to make it easier to find online content you care about, be it news about surfing or barbecue recipes. You can then share this with friends who might be interested in it. In an online video, Google calls it "nerding out" and exploring a subject together.
There's also a group messaging service called "Huddle" and a feature that lets users instantly upload photos that they take with mobile phones. The photos are stored in a private photo album on Google's remote servers, and users can access them and share them as they see fit.
Altimeter Group analyst Charlene Li has high hopes for the friend grouping feature. She said that her biggest pet peeve with Facebook is its existing friend management tools. She noted that millions of people already use Google to share things with others via email, and Google+ looks like a natural extension of this type of sharing, making it more functional and organized.
"I think Facebook is going to have to up its game," she said.
By invitation only
Google+ is undergoing what the company calls a "field trial," so it's accessible by invitation only and not yet available to the public. The company declined to say when it'll be more widely available.
Lou Kerner, a social media analyst with Wedbush Securities, believes the game is over in the competition to become the world's global social network. With 700 million users, Facebook has won, he said.
There's a lot more to the social web than just creating a successful social network, though, and Kerner thinks that with Google+ the search leader is trying to make its existing product offerings more social.
"I don't think they're seeing this as a direct competitor to Facebook," he said.
Google+ does have its skeptics.
"People have their social circles on Facebook," said Debra Aho Williamson, principal analyst with research firm eMarketer. "Asking them to create another social circle is challenging."
And Google is still best known for its flagship service, online search.
"The whole idea of a Google social network...they've been throwing stuff against the wall for several years and so forth nothing has stuck." Going to Google to be social, she added, is like "going to Starbucks for the muffins. Or, for that matter, going to Facebook for search."