With this week’s “invitation-only” launch of Google+, the search giant unleashed its latest attempt to stake a claim in the social networking space. But can Google successfully take on Facebook?
Critics point to Google’s underwhelming experiences with previous social networking applications, including Buzz and Orkut, as examples of the company’s inability to accurately assess market needs and respond effectively. But others point to Google’s deep pockets, previous successes in search and strengthening Android mobile platform as reason to believe the company can make an impact in the social media sector as well. Google+ also has the advantage of learning from Facebook’s shortcomings — for example, the new service allows users to be selective about which information is shared with different groups of followers.
“Just because it is Google doesn’t mean that [Google+] will have instantaneous success,” says Wharton marketing professor David Reibstein. He points to some of Google’s previous failures, including Google Wave, which was intended to take on Microsoft Outlook and instant messaging services by offering a mix between chat and email. Then there was Google Buzz, which was seen as an attempt to go after Twitter and Facebook. Reibstein says those misses came because Google did not fully understand “what all is involved in those businesses … basically, not understanding the customer well enough.”
Kartik Hosanagar, a Wharton professor of operations and information management feels differently. ”Google’s advantage is that it has a lot of cash and it can afford to build, learn, fail and restart,” he notes. “Clearly, Orkut and Buzz have not worked out as well as planned. But Google can afford to restart. More importantly, as a late entrant, Google+ has the advantage of learning from Facebook’s mistakes and delivering a product without those deficiencies.” Hosanagar says that the biggest user frustrations with Facebook have revolved around privacy concerns and contacts management. “Google+ is specifically focused on fixing these issues.”
Features of Google+ include the ability to create groups or “circles” of contacts, such as circles for friends, family and acquaintances; users can choose what information and updates they share with each circle. In addition, Google+ offers video chat and group-texting applications, and allows users to instantly upload photos and videos from Android smartphones. The service also has a “+1” button that is similar to Facebook’s “Like” feature. (For more, CBS has compiled a roundup of Google+ reviews from across the web.)
But Google is moving forward cautiously with its latest effort. Vic Gundotra, a Google senior vice president, told the Wall Street Journal that “fundamentally we believe online sharing is broken.” He continued, “We’re not going to nail it on our first attempt, but we’ll work as long as it takes.”
Google, of course, seems to have a penchant for launching beta products. Soon after opening the invitational rollout for Google+, it temporarily discontinued new registrations, citing “insane demand.”
According to Reibstein, Facebook “ought to be able to very easily respond” to the Google+ “circle” feature, if not others. “The question is how sustainable is any advantage coming out of Google+, which means something not easily replicable.” He adds that with its video chat capabilities, Google+ may deliver a strong challenge to Internet phone service Skype, a possibility also noted by Om Malik, founder and senior writer for technology trends site GigaOm.
“Google has to play to its strengths — that is, tap into its DNA of being an engineering-driven culture that can leverage its immense infrastructure,” Malik wrote. “It needs to look at Android and see if it can build a layer of services that get to the very essence of social experience: communication.” He predicts that Facebook is safe for now, arguing that “the only way to beat Facebook is through a thousand cuts.”
During a discussion on social media at last week’s Wharton Global Alumni Forum in San Francisco, panelists were asked why Google has had such difficulty in developing a social networking application with staying power. Panelist Ethan Beard, Facebook’s director of platform partnerships and former director of social media and head of new business development at Google, noted that the companies have two distinct cultures.
“There’s a fundamental difference [between Google and Facebook] in how the products are designed and in how the design process takes place,” Beard said. “Google is very academic…. Some of the greatest thinkers in computer science now work at Google. The design process … is focused on building a really cool back end that sifts through the data and pops out the result.”
On the other hand, Beard described Facebook as having more of a “hacker culture,” in the sense that “instead of working on the back end and throwing up any front end, we start with the designers and say, ‘What if a user saw this [on the front end]?’ and then ‘OK, that’s good, now go build the back end as fast as you can so we can start to play with it.'”
Cultural challenges aside, Hosanagar is optimistic about the prospects of Google+. “There’s nothing in Google’s DNA that prevents it from building a good social product,” says Hosanagar. “Given how big the social space is, and how much bigger it will be, Google is doing the right thing by trying for a third time.”
In the end, much depends on how many “+1s” Google+ gets from users. “Whether Google+ will stick will depend to some extent on the whims and fancies of unpredictable consumers,” Hosanagar notes. But Reibstein says the imponderables lie elsewhere: “I am not at all confident [Google] has a real feel for understanding what the marketplace needs.”