By Claire Cain Miller
New York Times / June 29, 2011
Google took its biggest leap yet onto Facebook’s turf yesterday, introducing a social networking service called the Google+ project — which happens to look very much like Facebook.
The service, which will initially be available only to a select group of Google users who will soon be able to invite others, will let people share and discuss status updates, photos, and links.
But the Google+ project will be different from Facebook in one significant way, which Google hopes will be enough to convince people to use yet another social networking service. It is designed for sharing with small groups — like colleagues, college roommates, or hiking friends — instead of with all of a user’s friends or the entire Web. It also offers group text messaging and video chat.
“In real life, we have walls and windows and I can speak to you knowing who’s in the room, but in the online world, you get to a ‘Share’ box and you share with the whole world,’’ said Bradley Horowitz, a vice president of product management at Google who is leading the company’s social efforts with Vic Gundotra, a senior vice president of engineering.
The debut of Google+ will test whether Google can overcome its past flops in social networking, like Buzz and Orkut, and deal with one of the most pressing challenges facing the company.
At stake is Google’s status as the most popular entry point to the Web. When people post on Facebook, which is mostly off-limits to search engines, Google loses valuable information that could benefit its Web search, advertising, and other products.
Google+ may already be too late. In May, 180 million people visited Google sites, including YouTube, versus 157.2 million on Facebook, according to comScore. But Facebook users looked at 103 billion pages and spent an average of 375 minutes on the site, while Google users viewed 46.3 billion pages and spent 231 minutes.
Advertisers pay close attention to those numbers, and to people increasingly turning to Facebook and other social sites like Twitter to ask questions they used to ask Google, like a recommendation for a restaurant or doctor, because they want more personalized answers.
Gundotra and Horowitz said that knowing more about individual Google users will improve all Google products, including ads, search, YouTube, and maps, because Google will learn what people like and eventually be able to personalize those products.
But Google has been criticized for failing to understand the importance of social information on the Web until competitors like Facebook and Twitter had already leapt ahead. Part of the blame, analysts say, falls on Google’s engineering-heavy culture, which values quantitative data and algorithms over more nuanced, touchy-feely pursuits like socializing.
Google+ users will start by selecting people they know from their Gmail contacts (and from other services, once Google strikes deals with them). They can drag and drop friends’ names into different groups, or circles, and give the circles titles, like “sisters’’ or “book club.’’ Unlike on Facebook, people do not have to agree to be friends with one another. They can receive someone’s updates without sharing their own. Users can also view their Google+ page the way their friends see it, to ensure their bosses do not see pictures from Saturday night, for instance.