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June 27, 2010

Google Me This, Google Me That. Can Google Me Trump Facebook, Or Will It Fall Flat?

Tomorrow's Web seems to be shaping up for a battle between two major players - Facebook and Google, with Apple and Microsoft holding down their own tangential fiefdoms, and smaller services, like Twitter and LinkedIn, chugging away with their utility-like products. Make no mistake of it - while there is room for innovation and success at these smaller levels, Facebook's goal is to own as much of the Web as they can, and Google would like to make sure they don't. An open Web, however you define it, is good for Google, presenting a myriad of opportunities for search ads everywhere, while a Facebook-controlled universe is not. And the latest rumors, spawning from a simple update by Digg's Kevin Rose hinting at a direct Facebook competitor, dubbed Google Me, have people wondering if Mountain View is preparing another major assault aimed to keep Zuckerberg and crew off the top pedestal.

Google's ventures into the social realm, thus far, have been less successful than their more data-centric programs. The idea that Google is all brain and no heart seems to follow the search giant around the Web, echoed by David Kirpatrick in The Facebook Effect, and the many naysayers who point to the slow development of Google Wave and initial stumbles of Google Buzz as proof that Google can't do social, making a new attempt, no matter how thorough, ripe for instant punditry aiming to be the first to claim its demise.

As someone who has watched the launch and growth of Buzz closely, what has been clear from the beginning are two major things relevant to the new discussion. First, the company never said this was a Twitter or Facebook competitor. They were clear to separate Buzz from being a challenger to those social titans. Second, the company has been banging the drum on open standards, from Activity Streams to Pubsubhubbub, Salmon, OAuth and many others.

In the meantime, in the wake of former Blogger product manager Rick Klau joining the Google Profiles team, I talked about ten ways the Google Profile could be improved, and later, how Google could tag team Profiles with Buzz, and its myriad of other social objects, and battle for your ID against Facebook. Even if Google's social solution is not fully baked yet, we can watch it cook, and we know many of its ingredients already.

For those saying Google Buzz has not met expectations, or in more strong terms, that it has failed, I can't say that I agree. I have heard anecdotal comments that Sergey Brin is especially focused on making sure Buzz is a success, and I have personally seen the breadth of the team working on the project, in an area on campus that requires a second level of clearance beyond the standard Google employee's badge. Whether Buzz remains the flagship social item for Google or becomes a key ingredient into a real bona fide Facebook competitor remains to be seen, but I see Buzz as the parallel for the newsfeed popularized first by FriendFeed, and later, folded in as the most visible part of Facebook today.

You've also seen previous rumors of Google looking for a head of Social, whatever that job entails. For a company who is driven by data over emotion, it seems they are fighting for the future of the Web against their blue-toned brethren, many of whom used to be Google employees. It's also widely known that if you do work for Google and announce you are leaving to join Facebook, you are whisked out of the building faster than a hoodie gathers nervous sweat. The tension between the two companies is very real.

The question becomes then, can Google, or anyone, provide a social environment that is attractive enough to get users to sign up en masse, or to change their behavior away from Facebook? Facebook's origins, based on a true identity, have helped connect people with former school peers, family members around the world, colleagues, and yes, complete strangers. To rebuild one's social graph is hard to do, even if Google has a ton of data on you and who you like to connect with and follow. It could be that this is a valiant attempt, with incredible technology that solves a problem which for the most part is lacking. I am not hearing my mainstream relatives who don't drink tech for a living say they want to leave Facebook. They are happy with a blog to communicate together and Facebook for more casual updates.

I don't know if Google Me exists or not. I would not be surprised if it does, but I also would not be surprised if this simply relates to the continued evolution of Profiles, with Klau and team on watch. Google didn't hire Chris Messina and Joseph Smarr and Brett Slatkin and Brad Fitzpatrick and Don Dodge just to keep them away from Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter and others. They brought these guys, and many more, on to make something happen. No matter what does happen, there's no question that social Web participants will benefit with more options and opportunities. Who knows? Maybe Google can set the Web on its collective ear again like they did with the introduction of GMail. I for one will never count them out.