February 09, 2010

Google's Newest Mission: Organizing the Social Experience

With today's introduction of Google Buzz, you are going to see a lot of reactions and news stories that say Google is trying to "kill" competition, including Twitter and Facebook. Given the company's hit and miss track record on introducing or cultivating products with social elements, it is no surprise that Google's introduction of Buzz can be viewed by some with a level of skepticism, or distrust, as the Mountain View company extends its reach on the Web. But in discussions I had with members of Google's team behind the new venture on Monday, it wasn't the squelching of competition they were looking for by debuting Buzz, but instead, extending the company's core mission: discovering and organizing the world's information - one that now includes social.

As Bradley Horowitz, one of Google's vice presidents of product management, recounted to me Monday, the history of Web search evolved from Yahoo!'s hand-driven approach to algorithmic search, powered by the likes of AltaVista, Lycos, Excite and others, until Google changed the game with a new approach, a "better" experience, helping propel them to the position they are in today, far and away the market share leader in search.

The company, largely on the outside looking in to much of the world's social content creation and sharing over the last few years, seeing smaller startups dominate the spotlight, determined they needed to approach the problem of social in a similar way as they had search, "embracing this new vector and phenomena of people sharing" into search and many of their products. Some of the reasons behind the move mirrored the same reasons that drove Google's inception - including complexity and a lack of tools that help determine relevancy.

"In the same way manual search broke down, social has broken down," Horowitz said. "When I had fifty friends, I could mine the stream, but as I have 500 or 5,000 friends, that breaks down, and the concept of who is a 'friend' has expanded by several orders of magnitude. It's a mishmash of information and it's no longer fun to dip into that. It has become a Google scale problem."

As anybody following a few thousand connections on Twitter or other networks can attest, updates can range from the sublime to the ridiculous, with each update being provided equal weight, and chronology typically being the only measure. To a data-driven company like Google, this "mismash" provides an opportunity to determine relevancy and bring the same clarity the company once brought to search to the world of social.

Buzz is Google's first major step to start ranking relevance, surfacing the data most important to you as an individual. A preview of Buzz's functionality was also teased in Google Reader's "Magic" capability, which debuted in October of last year, as well as the program's recommendations feature, also part of Buzz.

So how can Google determine relevancy with Buzz and start making sense of the social? Starting with GMail gives the company a major headstart, as they already know which contacts you trade e-mail with most often. They know how often you read e-mail from specific people, who you chat with most frequently by using the integrated GTalk feature, and they will often have data from you that provides your location, helping to tap that metric as well.

"A big part of what makes information relevant and useful is viewing the lens through personal relationships," Horowitz added.

You can see the steps Google is taking to start categorizing the social experience, with your personal profiles, your social circles, social search and now Buzz. It might be assumed they are playing catch up, but the company is, as it has in its history, with the additions of images, video, books and many other focuses for search and information, is extending its reach to become even more human, and to better understand just who you know, what you like and what you share.