Google’s Social Scheme Hinges on Fears, Not Fortunes

For years, Google has seemed like a terrifying giant: enormous, powerful and ultimately unassailable. Last week, however, we got a glimpse of what really scares them in Mountain View.

The launch of Google Buzz and the purchase of search startup Aardvark show us that one of Google’s greatest fears is people — or, more accurately, the social web made of people. To anyone familiar with the new generation of startups, social activity has been an obvious source of potential that still, to a large extent, remains untapped. And yet, despite all its efforts, this is an area that Google — far and away the web’s most influential company — is still trying to get to grips with.

At the squibbish launch of Buzz last week, Sergey Brin bristled at the suggestion that Google had failed to capitalize on the social web. Orkut, he said, had tremendous adoption in its core territories such as Brazil — the sort of penetration that other companies would fall over themselves to get. That clever response may be true, but it is also purposely narrow. The crucial question is not whether Orkut is successful in some markets, but why, in the places where Google is strongest (like the United States and Europe) it has failed to take off.

Brin may not like to admit it, but the evidence makes it hard to argue that Google has taken its chances in the past.

The company has invested heavily over the years in purchasing (and then shutting down) precisely the sort of systems it is now trying to mimic. In recent years we’ve witnessed the ignominious end of Dodgeball, a location-based social network, and Jaiku, touted early on as a challenger Twitter but neglected once Google bought it.

Even when it does have successful, high-traffic properties with a bedrock of social activity, like YouTube and Blogger, Google’s focus has been on using them to serve more ads, not using these beehives of activity to create something new.

In the past, the company has just brushed these things aside; but now it seems, the inability to understand the social web has brought Google out in a sweat.

It isn’t just the question of missed business opportunities that stings them down at the Googleplex, though. Underneath it all, there’s another complicated motivation to the company’s growing obsession with social: the deep anxiety that the company is turning into what it hates most. The very last thing that the engineers in Mountain View want to become is the web’s Microsoft, a lumbering giant that becomes reliant on a few hugely profitable products and ends up being overtaken simply because it’s unable to react to upcoming threats.

Despite its best efforts, that is precisely the spiral that Google appears to be falling into. Ironically enough, every attempt to prevent such an evolution from taking place actually makes it happen a little more. Google is killing some competitors simply by entering their market. It is shamelessly aping the products of smaller rivals. And, as we pointed out last week, it is increasingly looking to enterprise customers for growth when consumers don’t seem interested enough. All these troubles seem eerily familiar.

Google’s social inadequacies may not quite be its downfall, but it is clearly beginning to worry that even billions in the bank are not enough to win the next big game. And while that might not be good news for Google, it’s great for everybody else: Goliath, finally, is out of his comfort zone.

Question of the week

Will Google ever be able to dominate the social web?