June 29, 2011

Google Unveils Potential Facebook Rival

Internet search giant Google is launching a new campaign aimed at taking on Facebook directly.

Google+, the company's most aggressive assault on the social networking empire, was unveiled on Tuesday with little fanfare.

Google has dealt with a number of flops and failed attempts to carve out a corner of the social networking market and is hoping its new venture will be a turnaround success. It marks the company's biggest jump into social networking since co-founder Larry Page took over as CEO in April.

Page has made social networking his number one priority, as the company's dominance as a gateway to online information is shaky as more people flock to social networking sites for all their needs.

Google's new plan is built around four unique features called Circles, Sparks, Hangout and Huddle. The company stresses that the new products do not form a new, single social network, but is the company's most serious plan to incorporate social elements into its products so far.

Circles is Google's closest product to Facebook. It allows users to drag their contacts into individual groups. The aim is to allow people to share different things with different groups of people more easily. Google users will be able to import contacts from Yahoo and Microsoft, but not from Facebook -- that site does not allow export of contact information to Google.

Sparks lets users share content they find on the web, and suggests more content. Google calls this a "sharing engine," rather than a search engine. Writing on the Google Blog, senior VP of engineering Vic Gundotra said: "Thanks to Google's web expertise, Sparks delivers a feed of highly contagious content from across the Internet. On any topic you want, in over 40 languages. Simply add your interests, and you'll always have something to watch, read and share."

Hangout encourages users to share content within groups, such as being able to watch YouTube videos together, despite not being in the same room.

Huddle is a group messaging application that allows messages to be sent to large numbers of people at one time, and is aimed at groups trying to plan events, such as organizing a night out.

Google+ can be used via a new toolbar that Google is rolling out, with the aim of encouraging people to share their status as they would on Facebook. Also available are mobile elements that work with Android phones and Apple's iPhone. Google also introduced a new feature that immediately uploads photos and videos taken with Android devices.

Initial reaction online to Google+ was mixed, mostly because users have had little time to try out the new services. For most people who are happy with Facebook, "there seems relatively little to make you want to switch over to Google Plus, at the moment," said Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan. Future upgrades and integration may change that for some people. "Perhaps if there are people who want a Facebook alternative, Google's now got a core to build on for them."

Google+, codenamed Emerald Sea, was released with no press conference, no press release and no executives shouting its arrival. Its debut was marked by a simple blog post by Gundotra.

Google has been under growing threat as Facebook climbs past 500 million members. Although Google dominates the search market with a 65 percent market share according to research firm comScore, more and more people rely on their friends and their social graph for recommendations. An example would be: who would you trust for a recommendation for restaurant more? Your Facebook friends or Google's search engine?

Google and Facebook have been bitter rivals for some time. Earlier this year Facebook was caught using a PR firm to plant unfavorable stories about Google.

In a blog post, Google's Gundotra referred to social networking as being "sloppy, scary and insensitive" and maintained that the "problem is that today's online services turn friendship into fast food - wrapping everyone in 'friend' paper."

Google has been scratching and clawing to keep a dominant lead on page and video views, but it is clearly losing that battle to Facebook.

Users looked at 103 billion pages and spent an average of 375 minutes on the site compared to Google's 46.3 billion pages where users spent 231 minutes. These are figures that advertisers pay close attention to.

Google's then CEO and now chairman Eric Schmidt admitted earlier this year that he "screwed up" in the social networking department. "I clearly knew I had to do something and I failed to do it."

Since Page returned as CEO in April he put the company on notice and told employees that future bonuses would be tied to the success of Google's social strategy.

Tuesday's release is only limited to a number of people via invite before it plans a launch to the general public. This is so they can react quickly to feedback and implement changes easily without upsetting a lot of users at once.

Charlene Li of the Altimeter Group said Google's new plans should worry Facebook at least some.

"The biggest risk group inside Facebook are people like me who are marginal users, in their 40's and someone who does not have all their friends on Facebook. Facebook is a toss up for me. My entire social graph isn't using Facebook so that is up for grabs and if Google+ does a good job for people like me, that is where I will go," Li told BBC News.

"It will be an interesting battle ahead. And for Google to be successful it doesn't have to beat Facebook, it just needs to get enough people in these circles to spend time there to make a dent on what Facebook does," she said.

Facebook has faced much criticism for its confusing privacy policies and controls. Last year it introduced a feature that lets user create smaller groups of friends. Google, without mentioning Facebook by name, said other social networks' attempts to create groups have not seen a lot of success.

"We're in the early days of making the Web more social, and there are opportunities for innovation everywhere," Facebook told Reuters in an emailed statement.

When asked whether he expected people to switch from Facebook to Google+, Gundotra said people may decide to use both. "People today use multiple tools. I think what we're offering here offers some very distinct advantages around some basic needs," he said.

The Google+ release comes as MySpace plans to announce a number of layoffs along with the news that it will be sold for around $30 million -- a drop in the bucket compared to the $580 million price tag Rupert Murdoch paid in 2005 for what was then the world's top social network.

For more information on Google+ visit: https://plus.google.com/