Google Wants To Clone Facebook To Protect Search

Last Updated Jul 30, 2010 4:25 PM EDT

Google (GOOG) is in talks with online gaming companies to develop a competitor to Facebook, according to a Wall Street Journal report. The theory would be that social games have been a big reason for Facebook's success. That may be true, but there's a twist in the logic, and a turn in what Google wants. The twist: games came after socializing and didn't create the flock behavior. The turn? Google doesn't want to create a social network so much as keep Facebook from becoming a preferred choice over search.
It is unclear when Google may launch the new gaming offering and the plans aren't finalized, but people briefed on the matter said the games would be part of broader social-networking initiative that is under development by the Mountain View, Calif., company.
Apparently CEO Eric Schmidt has said that anything Google might do in social networking wouldn't be like Facebook because "the world doesn't need a copy of the same thing."

Given how often Schmidt says one thing and then has Google do the opposite, my money is on his getting a makeover to more closely resemble Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Not that it would do any good. Facebook drew games because it already had users. The more people congregate online, the more they want new ways to interact. Collecting game titles alone won't bring people, and there are already popular gaming sites on the web.

What Google wants to do is mitigate the recommendations that happen on Facebook. When it comes to looking for information, most people are lazy, rarely going beyond the first page of search results. People prefer trusted sources to point out answers, suggest products, and otherwise offer key advice. In fact, as a recent study at Northwestern University suggested, college students treat search results as recommendations by the search engine without doing the necessary verification.

If they've got a pool of hundreds, or maybe more, of people to ask, or who could also pass on their requests, many people will probably ask whom they know before heading to a search engine. Not good news for Google. This is why Facebook and Twitter represent threats. When your business is based on directing people to information in whatever form they request, it's bad news when they take their questions elsewhere. And so, Google wants to duplicate its challenger, assembling parts, including games and music, in hopes of creating the same social magic.

Except that that strategy won't work. It can't. The relationships consumers have to the two sites are completely different and the conditions that allowed the growth and expansion of Facebook are gone. People approached Facebook as a place to connect with people they knew. Consumers have always seen Google as a place to accomplish something, whether find some information, watch a video, or use an application. To be social, people have to spend time. Look at this graph (click to enlarge):

YouTube gets closest of any, but it is a site for individual activity. As for Google, Yahoo (YHOO), or Microsoft (MSFT), people spend five to ten minutes a day. That's not long enough for a decent hello, let alone socializing. And adding features doesn't give people a reason to change their routine -- otherwise known as give up Facebook for Google.


Image: user KonArt, site standard license.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.