Google versus Facebook

Open or closed? The fight over standards on the social web.

(L-R) Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google Inc., versus Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. (Photos: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty and Justin Sullivan/Getty)

On June 28, Google’s senior vice-president of engineering Vic Gundotra introduced his company’s latest social networking platform project Google Plus, which within four weeks became the fastest social site to reach 25 million users. That same day, News Corp. finalized the deal that would make official My­Space’s dramatic fall from a social media powerhouse—acquired by Rupert Murdoch & Co. for $580 million in July 2005—to an outcast unloaded for the bargain-basement price of $35 million. On one day, two major social networking projects pass each other in opposite directions. One, the former champ, is like an aging boxer heaving himself into that last cash-grab fight. The other, just entering the ring, is already hailed as the next Great Web Hope. It’s a cautionary tale on the fickle fortunes of social media, but also a reminder of the size of the stakes.

The unveiling of Google Plus has been overwhelmingly framed as a direct challenge to Facebook, a struggle for a share of its 750 million users and almost $2 billion in annual advertising revenue. Google Plus has been described as taking the best aspects of both Facebook and Twitter and wrapping it in a cleaner interface with better privacy controls. The biggest innovation are its “Circles,” which allow users to tailor status updates and information to a varied group of contacts such as friends, co-workers and family. As Google sees it, you’d probably describe last night’s party one way to your best friend, another to your cubicle mate, and have yet another version for your mom, and a social network should accommodate that. Another feature is “Hangouts,” a video-chat function with up to 10 people, and a searchable newsfeed called “Sparks.”

These are all cool and useful social tools that could help Google Plus establish itself as a major force in social networking, but perhaps that’s not really the point. Just as Android really isn’t about the phones, this isn’t about how many Facebook users Google Plus can poach, but how it might act as a catalyst to move the social web beyond the “walled garden” of Facebook and back into the open web, which Google’s search engine bestrides like a colossus. The majority, if not all, of our social networking options essentially operate within their own universe, cut off from the wider web. What you do on Facebook stays within Facebook. The more social networking exists behind these so-called walled gardens, the less ad revenue Google banks. On the flipside, the more you do on the open web, the better Google can index it for search, and supply advertising to it.

That just might be the real play here for Google. Recent tech history is littered with platform wars, from IBM PCs in the 1980s to web browsers in the ’90s to the ongoing operating system struggles between Microsoft, Apple, Google and others. But the fight over social is more akin to the classic VHS/Beta conflict in that it’s about a common standard. Beyond just Facebook and Google Plus, what’s really at stake is which standard will eventually dominate the social layer of the Internet: the open web or the walled garden. And whether we’re talking videotapes or Highlander, in the end there can be only one.

In his initial intro of Plus on the Official Google Blog, Gundotra wrote, “Today, the connections between people increasingly happen online. Yet the subtlety and substance of real-world interactions are lost in the rigidness of our online tools.…In this basic, human way, online sharing is awkward. Even broken. And we aim to fix it.” Implied in all that rigid awkwardness are the limitations of the walled garden. To that end, a Google spokesperson told Canadian Business that the Google Plus project is a direct extension of the company mission of “developing open, transparent and useful ways for people to connect online.” Google’s chief economist Hal Varian has said in the past that company products are developed with the idea of imposing open standards on the competition.

To do that, any new Google product needs leverage, ideally gained through user popularity and influence. In that respect, Plus came out of the gate like gangbusters, hitting 10 million users in 16 days, a plateau that took Twitter 780 days, and Facebook 852. No doubt, Plus had the advantage of the world’s most visited site as its promotions department, but initial growth has still been enough to earn cautiously gushing reviews from the tech press, as well as the enthusiastic optimism of marketers.

Google has been here before though. In 2004 came Orkut, largely ignored in North America (but huge in Brazil). Last year, it launched Buzz, a Twitter-like application that landed with a resounding thud, thanks largely to ill-conceived privacy settings that made users’ Gmail contacts public, among other less creepy design flaws. But to many, this one feels different.

Edd Dumbill, program chair of the O’Reilly Open Source Convention, hopes Google Plus is the start of a new social layer to the web without silos or walled gardens preventing users and their information from moving between platforms. In a blog post titled, “Google+ is the social backbone,” Dumbill described the new project as the first major step toward integrating all social applications, much like e-mail went from a number of closed systems to incorporating one online communication standard as a foundation.

“Facebook currently owns social, and the closed [system] model is working well for them,” said Dumbill in an interview. “But at the end of the day, closed cannot compete with open if open delivers a more nuanced experience to people. Years ago, Europe had a bunch of national social networks. Then Facebook came in and shut them all out of the market because, as we all know, in real life, friendship doesn’t recognize national borders. If an interoperating system allows a lot more diversity, creativity, and meets the real needs of communities while at the same time not shutting them out of the greater network effect, then Facebook will certainly have to change.”

Another reason Google Plus may force Facebook to change is in its appeal to brands. Advertising is what fuels the social web, and Dre Labre, creative director at ad agency Rethink Canada, says a more seamless integration with the open web, combined with Google’s already robust advertising products, make Plus a particularly attractive option. “Facebook knows who you’re talking to and events you’re going to, but the minute you leave Facebook they lose you,” said Labre. “Google knows what sites you’re on, ads you’re clicking on and what you’re searching for, but the minute you go to Facebook, they lose you. With Plus as a social channel, you now have a seamless, ubiquitous social ecosystem. Not only does it know what you’re searching for and clicking on, it knows who you’re talking to and what content you’re sharing. Every advertiser’s using Google Analytics, so you can see where branding and marketing can take advantage of it.”

Even though Google’s long-term social plan doesn’t necessarily depend on the success of Plus, the company is still bullish on its chances of playing giant killer. Between privacy and the selective socializing of circles, Google has taken a few less-than-subtle swipes at Facebook. Gundotra has said, “People had a desire to connect on other services, but privacy always was a stumbling block. That’s a huge opportunity.” Vice-president of product management Bradley Horowitz has been a bit more direct, telling Reuters, “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. For us, privacy isn’t buried six panels deep.”

At the same time, Google has been careful to initially position Plus as an added bonus to our online social lives, not a direct competitor. Google chairman Eric Schmidt has said he looks forward to increased integration between Plus, Twitter and Facebook. Senior Forrester Research analyst Josh Bernoff says that this inclusive approach is the right way to kick things off. “This is the perfect Goldilocks strategy,” said Bernoff. “Facebook as it currently stands can do all sorts of things, but some of it can be extremely complicated. Twitter, on the other hand, is extremely simple. Google Plus went for just right—not as simple as Twitter, but not as complicated as Facebook, while also taking aim at Facebook’s biggest weakness, privacy.”

Ongoing concerns over privacy may be Facebook’s biggest weakness, but it’s also the most significant obstacle standing in the way of Dumbill’s social web ideal. It’s unclear just how much and with whom people want to share their information. More known, as evidenced by the reaction to Buzz and to Facebook’s various privacy missteps, is how users will react if that line is crossed. Google Plus, so far, looks like a nifty compromise between the Facebook model and a truly open social web that isn’t quite a walled garden, but close.

“In order to succeed with this kind of social application, Google has to make the permission and privacy settings more tractable and easier to manipulate,” said Bernoff. “That makes it easier for people to hide stuff from Google searches. But I think they’ve recognized that it’s much better if they do that than if Facebook does it. The Android situation is analogous, in that, if you’re going to do apps, they’d rather you use their apps. Google would love it if the world didn’t have any apps at all, but at least this way they’re in the game.”

Indeed, between all of Google’s offerings—including Google Docs, Analytics, and Gmail— the company has created its own version of a walled garden where the bulk of users’ web experience is through Google products, all of which are open to Google’s search engine.

“Google Plus is just another door into that larger Google ecosystem,” said Labre. “Maybe it’s not quite a wall, but more like a hedge. It’s a hedged garden, in that you can get through it if you try hard enough.”

Dumbill says that showing users how an integrated, open social experience can work, first within that Google suite of products, will go a long way. “The best thing Google Plus can do right now is show the potential application by bringing those social facilities onto their online office software. As a long play, it will provide the best indication of how this kind of stuff can and will be used, as well as prove it can be done.”

A recent survey of more than 2,000 app developers reported that two-thirds think Google Plus will “catch up” to Facebook, saying that with assets such as search, Maps and YouTube, the company “trumps Facebook’s social graph lead,” and 49% think Google “shows more innovation than Facebook.”

With the rollout of Google Plus’s brand pages, app and gaming environment still to come, the potential for a seismic shift in the social web is there. Google Plus may yet become the web’s social backbone, but the platform still has yet to prove it’s more than just buzz.