Can Google Figure Out How to Appeal to Lobsters As Well As Pandas?

Google (s goog) has a lock on the web habits of hundreds of millions of users, but it has so far failed to translate that dominance into anything approaching a social network or community, despite its many attempts: Buzz had a number of issues right out of the gate and has yet to get much traction, Wave appears to have sunk without a trace, and Orkut is popular in Brazil and parts of Europe but virtually a non-entity elsewhere. Google is now reportedly working on a Facebook-style network, but no one seems to be giving it great odds. So why does being social continue to elude the web giant? Adam Rifkin, former co-founder of Renkoo and a former staffer with KnowNow and CommerceNet, says it is because Google caters to pandas instead of lobsters.

By pandas, Rifkin (who clearly identifies with the giant bears) means web users who simply want to search for something and then move on — in other words, those who want to find a specific piece of information and make use of it, rather than hang around chatting or socializing with others. This is what psychologists call “goal-oriented behavior,” and it is a completely different type of activity from what most people engage in on social-networking sites like Twitter or Facebook.

The kind of application that Google knows how to make well are the kind that embody the “eats, shoots, and leaves” model of Internet behavior. Pandas spend every waking hour foraging — aka searching — and consuming. The most successful Google applications serve such a utilitarian mandate, too: they encourage users to search for something, consume, and move onto the next thing. Get in, do your business, get out… where Google does not excel is in making applications that are by their nature for lingering and luxuriating — the so-called social applications.

Rifkin contrasts this with Facebook, which is what he calls “a lobster trap,” or a place where the activity of friends — in posting photos or playing games or engaging in other social behavior — is constantly pulling users back in and convincing them to spend more time there.

“Every time a friend shares a status, a link, a like, a comment or a photo, Facebook has more bait to lure me back,” he writes. Rifkin also correctly notes that sites such as Quora (the question and answer site) and services such as Foursquare and Twitter are successful in ways that Google is not because they offer real-time social interaction and repeated incentives to return and spend more time.

I think Rifkin makes a good point — Google is good at software that focuses on specific tasks, but doesn’t do much to convince users to stick around or interact with each other, and that is increasingly important. Call it a portal vs. a utility approach. What Google needs to do, obviously, is think a bit more about how to appeal to lobsters, and less about the pandas and their goal-oriented behavior. But can it do this? The company’s culture seems motivated almost entirely by an engineering ethos, according to many observers as well as former employees: in other words, see a problem and solve it. Even its recent socially-oriented hires, such as open-web advocate Chris Messina, seem aimed primarily at the technical side of things, such as the OpenSocial and ActivityStreams standards discussions. But social networking doesn’t involve a problem with a specific solution — it’s simply a human activity that people enjoy, for a variety of reasons.

Google is clearly looking for ways to attack this defect in its makeup: it is thinking hard about how social networks function, if a recent presentation by a Google staffer is anything to go by, and it is attempting to hire a “head of social” to try and coordinate its efforts. There have also been reports that it is working on a gaming platform with Zynga as a way of helping it build a social graph. But while Google may own search and advertising, it is still a babe in the woods when it comes to understanding how human beings relate to each other outside of a specific suite of tools. And corporate culture and DNA are difficult to change.

The reality is that the web titan needs to figure out the social element of the web quickly, or it will start to lose ground to Facebook and its ilk — and it’s not just about playing in the same pool as Facebook, it’s about the impact that social networking is having on both search and advertising, the two pillars of Google’s empire. If people are spending more time on social networks, then advertisers will want to be do likewise, and that is a real threat to Google’s future, as Om has pointed out in a GigaOM research report (subscription required). Time to figure out how to appeal to those lobsters, and pronto.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Chi King and tm-tm