Will Creating a SWAT Team Help Google Get Social?

As successful as Google (s goog) has been with plenty of other things — including a little thing called search-related advertising — it has struck out big-time in virtually every attempt at the social side of the web (although Orkut, the company’s version of a Friendster/Facebook-style social network, is apparently a big deal in Brazil and India). Google Friend Connect may have been launched before Facebook came out with its version, but there’s little question as to which of them has more traction. Then there’s Picasa, Google Latitude — the list of underwhelming social apps goes on.

Undeterred, Google appears to be putting together a kind of social web SWAT team to try and enhance its performance in the space. Earlier this year, the company hired well-known web designer and consultant Chris Messina as well as Joseph Smarr, the former chief technology officer at Plaxo. And in a blog post on Tuesday, programmer Will Norris announced that he was also joining the new Social Web team.

Messina, who’s worked with the Spread Firefox campaign and started the BarCamp movement, is a vocal proponent of open web standards, particularly when it comes to concepts such as OpenID and cross-platform user authorization. He started an open-source collaborative project called DiSo (short for “distributed and social”) that was aimed at allowing users to create and maintain control over their own social identities online, rather than giving control over to walled-garden networks such as Facebook or MySpace.

Norris also worked on the DiSo project, and on another open-source user authorization system he developed called Shibboleth. Smarr, meanwhile, is widely known for his support of open web standards as a member (along with Messina) of the OpenID Foundation, his seat on the OpenSocial Foundation board, and for co-authoring a “Bill of Rights for Users of the Social Web.” He also gave a talk at Google’s I/O event last year, which is embedded in this post Liz wrote about his move to Google.

While Google hasn’t said what the new team’s duties will be exactly, the backgrounds of these three men make clear that the company — rather than trying to out-Facebook Facebook or out-Twitter Twitter — wants to focus on the plumbing of the social web. In that sense, the search giant’s strategy appears to be an extension of its Open Social project, which was designed to help tie together a variety of social networks through a common set of programming APIs, and allow people to move data between them.

It might be unfair to describe Open Social as a bust, but it certainly hasn’t lived up to some of the early attention the launch of the project garnered a little over two years ago. Although social networks such as MySpace, Hi5, Orkut, Plaxo, Ning and Yahoo joined the venture, Facebook — the hottest social network around — did not, and there have been few tangible results from the partnership. The reality is that developers continue to develop for the Facebook platform, as closed as it might be, because that is where the users and the momentum are.

One risk for the company in pursuing the Open Social idea is that hiring Messina and Smarr might be perceived, as it is already by some open-web proponents (for a sample, read the comments on this post), as an attempt to somehow control that movement and divert it to Google’s purposes. A venture that might have been seen as a selfless act of public-spirited advocacy when the company was smaller could look a lot like a power grab or an attempt at co-opting a movement now that it’s a globe-spanning colossus.

So is flying the flag of the Open Web the right strategy for Google? The plumbing approach certainly fits with the company’s reputation as a home for math geeks and programming PhDs. And let’s face it, focusing on the open web had better be the right strategy, because nothing else seems to be working. If Google can get its team of social-web superheroes to produce something that gets the company noticed in the social sphere, then it might have a chance. If not, the default winner of the social web will be Facebook.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Angelina 🙂