SAN FRANCISCO - Google Inc is making its boldest move to take on Facebook in the fast-growing social networking market and to maintain its dominance on the Web.
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Google, which has been frustrated by a string of failed attempts to crack the social networking market, introduced a full-fledged social network on Tuesday dubbed Google+. It is the company's biggest foray into social networking since co-founder Larry Page took over as chief executive in April.
Page has made social networking a top priority at the world's No. 1 Internet search engine, whose position as the main gateway to online information could be at risk as people spend more time on sites like Facebook and Twitter.
"They had the luxury of making mistakes in the past with their social
initiatives. They don't really have that luxury now," said Ray Valdes,
an analyst at research firm Gartner, referring to Google.
"Companies that are successful with the social web will get the page
views, they'll get the engagement and they'll eventually get the
advertising dollars that are so important to Google," he said.
Google+, now available for testing, is structured in remarkably similar
fashion to Facebook, with profile pictures and newsfeeds forming a
central core. However, a user's friends or contacts are grouped into
very specific circles of their choosing, versus the common pool of
friends typical on Facebook. For a closer look, click here
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Enticing consumers to join another social networking service will not be
easy, said Rory Maher, an analyst with Hudson Square Research.
"They're going to have an uphill battle due to Facebook's network
effects," said Maher, citing the 700 million users that some research
firms say are currently on Facebook's service.
"The more users they (Facebook) get, the harder it gets for Google to
steal those," he said. But he added that Google's popularity in Web
search and email could help it gain a following.
To set its service apart from Facebook, Google is betting on what it
says is a better approach to privacy -- a hot-button issue that has
burned Facebook, as well as Google, in the past.
Central to Google+ are the "circles" of friends and acquaintances. Users
can organize contacts into different customized circles -- family
members, coworkers, college friends -- and share photos, videos or other
information only within those groups.
"In the online world there's this 'share box' and you type into it and
you have no idea who is going to get that, or where it's going to land,
or how it's going to embarrass you six months from now," said Google
Vice President of Product Management Bradley Horowitz.
"For us, privacy isn't buried six panels deep," he added.
Facebook, which has been criticized for its confusing privacy controls,
introduced a feature last year that lets users create smaller groups of
friends. Google, without mentioning Facebook by name, said other social
networking services' attempts to create groups have been "bolt-on"
efforts that do not work as well.
Facebook, in an emailed statement, said "we're in the early days of
making the Web more social, and there are opportunities for innovation
Google+ started rolling out to a limited number of users on Tuesday in
what the company is calling a field trial. Only those invited to join
will initially be able to use the service. Google did not say when it
would be more widely available.
Google, which generated roughly $29 billion in revenue in 2010, said the new service does not currently feature advertising.Learning from Buzz
Google's stock has been pressured by concerns about rising spending
within the company and increasing regulatory scrutiny -- not to mention
its struggles with social networking. The US Federal Trade Commission,
among others, is currently reviewing its business practices.
Its shares are down almost 20 percent this year after underperforming the market in 2010.
To create Google+, the company went back to the drawing board in the
wake of several notable failures, including Google Wave and Google Buzz,
a microblogging service whose launch was marred by privacy snafus.
"We learned a lot in Buzz, and one of the things we learned is that
there's a real market opportunity for a product that addresses people's
concerns around privacy and how their information is shared," said
Google drew more than 1 billion visitors worldwide to its websites in
May, more than any other company, according to Web analytics firm
comScore. But people are spending more time on Facebook: The average US
visitor spent 375 minutes per month on Facebook in May, compared with
231 minutes for Google.
Google+ seems designed to make its online properties a pervasive part of
the daily online experience, rather than being spots where Web surfers
occasionally check in to search for a website or check email.
As with Facebook's service, Google Plus has a central Web page that
displays an ever-updating stream of the comments, photos and links being
shared by friends and contacts.
A toolbar across the top of most of Google's sites -- such as its main
search page, its Gmail site and its Maps site -- allows users to access
their personalized data feed. They can then contribute their own
information to the stream.
The company has combined the Facebook and Twitter models of social
networking in Google+: A person can have friends in their network with
whom they share information and they can also follow certain people, say
a movie critic, as occurs on Twitter.
Google+ will also offer a special video chat feature, in which up to 10
people can jump on a conference call. And Google will automatically
store photos taken on cell phones on its Internet servers, allowing a
Google+ user to access the photos from any computer and share them.
When asked whether he expected people to switch from Facebook to
Google+, Google Senior Vice President of Engineering Vic 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.
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