Monday, January 11, 2010

Google - The Hidden Social Giant

Gigaom's Liz Gannes has written an interesting piece today about Google’s Approach to Social for 2010.

Many popular tech writers are very bullish about Facebook in comparison to Google, when it comes to the social web. The belief is that, in the long run, Facebook will beat Google due to the valuable social information it has got about millions of users around the world. Their theory is that Google is only good at the informational web, the one about indexing online info and making it easily accessible. The more lucrative and more valuable social web, they say, belongs to Facebook. Or so the theory goes. Well, there's many a slip between a theory and reality.

At first glance, the popular tech writers' theory might appear to be true. Google spends a lot of resources to index all kinds of content on the Internet. Facebook spends a lot of resources to collect information about your friends. When it is time to purchase a product or try a new restaurant or watch a movie, will you give more importance to an anonymous review you discovered through a Google search or the recommendation of a friend you know and trust? Does the information web have more value or the social web?

At first glance, Google is the place where you go to search for things. Facebook is the place where you formally identify certain people as your friends, you share your status messages with them, perhaps even some photos and may be invitation to events. And Facebook has been seeing spectacular growth to its user population in recent years and months. So, it's easy to believe that when it comes to all things social, Facebook is "where it's all at".

I invite you to take a second, more deeper look. In no particular order, this is what a sample of a second look shows us:
  • Facebook might know about your occasional mood of the moment through your status message or when a relationship starts / ends. But Google knows about a lot of things that happened in between - from the places you searched to go on your first few dates to the relationship advice you sought via Google.
  • Facebook might know about those itty-bitty messages you write each other on your walls, but Google has your entire emails and transcripts of your chats. Not only with people you formally designate as friends, but also with people you don't label as friends, with colleagues, former / current / prospective employers, with strangers you might have briefly communicated with... just anybody and everybody to whom you sent an email from your GMail account.
  • You might send an invitation to your friends for a day trip from Facebook, but Google knows all about it when each and every one of the trip group looked up directions on Google Maps.
  • If you are a GMail user, I bet your GMail address book is much bigger than your Facebook friends list. Google could use just the address books of all GMail users and easily draw threads connecting the majority of the world's online population.
  • Do you use Google Calendar either on the desktop or via your smartphone? Google knows a lot about the events in your life - big and small - than Facebook ever would know.
  • Are you a Google Voice users? Great! Google knows about the people you call or sms too - whether they are your friends or not. Last I heard, Facebook had no idea about your phone calls.
  • Do you use apps like Google Docs or Google Wave to collaborate with friends and colleagues? Google knows all the details about your collaboration projects.
I could list a lot more scenarios where Google has Facebook beat hands down when it comes to information about your social circle and yourself. Google was thinking of online social links when Facebook was still a baccha (Hindi word for child). Remember how GMail was launched? The concept of one person inviting another? It was not just a marketing gimmick. It was a way for Google to find out who knows whom around the world. To build a social map, so to speak. Google was the first email provider to think of listing every single person you correspond with as a contact.

On Facebook, there is a certain conscious "social web" action you to do in order to let Facebook learn about you. You know that you are posting something online to share with someone or for someone to see. The beauty of Google's approach is that, you don't have to do anything that explicitly feels like a 'social web' action; all you do is merely go about your life, using online tools which are truly useful. You are not conscious of sharing or posting something somewhere that someone could see. Consequently, you end up sharing a lot more.

Google might never build a social networking website that is better than Facebook. It is not necessary. As long as Google knows more about you than Facebook and Google doesn't do evil stuff with that information and Google knows how to monetize that information without doing stupid things like informing your girlfriend about the engagement ring you bought her before you are ready to propose, Google will always be ahead of Facebook.


  1. The story about the poor guy who bought an engagement ring only to have Facebook screw his surprise is interesting. To read that story yourself, go to this link and scroll down to the comment by a guy named Will.