How a Google Social Network Would Compare to Facebook

Last Updated Jun 28, 2010 4:45 PM EDT

Digg Founder Kevin Rose has set off rumors that Google (GOOG) is launching a Facebook competitor called "Google Me." But knowing Google, it won't look anything like Facebook.

Most early speculation about Google Me has been confused. Fox News hypothesized that such a Google network would look like a lamentable mashup of Google Wave and Google Buzz, two tepidly-received social tools. FastCompany suggested such a service might scrape data from users' existing Google accounts to make an expanded profile. SFWeekly is less diplomatic: "At this point it seems as though the search company is just throwing social networking ventures against a wall and seeing what sticks."

But none of that makes sense with what Google actually does. In a phrase, it's expertise is the kind of simplicity embodied by Google Search: function over form. More specifically, iterative function over form. Google products, at their conception, are rarely "killers" of anything, let alone a monster like Facebook. (Even YouTube, the most successful of the Google offspring, has changed immensely since 2006, having evolved from video repository into a playlist machine used mostly for music discovery.)

So it would be very un-Google to attempt a massive personal-info clearinghouse (ala Facebook) with a prescribed purpose. Google isn't so interested in conceiving of silver bullets in house; in fact, almost every product has been soft-launched as a Beta project so that the early adopters can muck around and figure out what, exactly, it's good for. Facebook, on the other hand, is more top down, like a conventional service-oriented company: they know what they want their products to do before they launch them, and they're more interested in keeping you on Facebook than in letting your usage determine their vision.

So if Google Me does exist, it will probably be exactly how it sounds: a service that culls a bunch of search-gleaned results to paint a picture of who you are online. Imagine it like Google Alerts on steroids: everything about you is crawled and presented to you for your approval: photos, links, profiles, feeds and so on. Whatever results you like, you keep on your profile, and the rest you throw away. Unlike Facebook, it wouldn't ask you to imagine your best possible self. It would describe who you actually are online. And when people actually start using it, maybe then Google will figure out how it relates to the way people use Facebook.

The idea of your own personal Google net isn't as scary as it seems. In fact, from a privacy standpoint, this is Google doing what it should have done long ago: give users control over how they appear on Google Search. When someone Googles me, there's no telling what they'll find -- not because I have a particularly scandalous Web footprint, but because it may deliver outdated results or find other Chris Dannens that aren't so well behaved. (Not to mention that the way Google's PageRank works doesn't necessarily serve the purpose of people-searching.)

If users are allowed to cull search info about themselves, filter it, tailor it, and add to it, then perhaps the next time someone searches my name, they'll find the profile I want them to see instead of just a bunch of extraneous or irrelevant links.

This kind of feature would also help organize Google users around their content -- not the other way around, as on Facebook. On the big blue network, you find people by searching their names. But on Google's system, you could conceivably have much more latitude in finding people by interest, association or location.

An existing product called Google Friend Connect, a simple free tool for amateur Web developers, provides some insight into the way Google thinks about networking. Friend Connect gives you the ability to have people "join" your site and build a small community there (using their Google logins), allowing for normal website stuff like comments, polling, link-sharing and reviews. It also lets people share things from your site via networks like StumbleUpon, Digg, Facebook and Twitter, as well as about a dozen others. And for people who have AdSense units on their site, it helps deliver more targeted advertising.

The goal, apparently, is a diffuse and decentralized social "network" comprised of connections and content-sharing -- exactly the opposite of Facebook, which relies on personalized landing pages that act as hubs for content. If Google stays within the Friend Connect spirit, then Google Me will look more like a semantic Web tool (like GetGlue) than Facebook. That may be to its advantage. While Facebook is beholden to constantly improve its own site, a more fluid "network" of connections wouldn't have to deal with the overhead and the usability headaches of designing such a massive hub for so many different kinds of users.

Of course, a promising idea never foreordains a good product, and Google has been known to launch some stinkers in the past. But what's salient about Google Me is not that it could affect attrition from Facebook; with a projected 1 billion users by 2011, it would take an act of God to stop the Zuckerberg juggernaut. No, the interesting thing about the notion of a Google network is the notion that age-old "content hub" model that has served Facebook, MySpace (NWS), Friendster and LinkedIn so well may not, after all, be impervious to improvement.