How Slide Pushes Google’s Open Social Strategy

Google (s GOOG) this morning confirmed what had already been widely reported — that it has bought Slide, the social application maker. (In fact, it’s already been reported who made what from the $182 million sale, with an additional $46 million paid in retention bonuses.)

Google’s blog post on the matter, written by engineering director David Glazer, is incredibly vague as to what Slide will actually be doing for Google. He’s starting to say some of the right words, but we’re going to need to see some product to see if Google really gets it. Meanwhile, Slide founder and CEO Max Levchin (who’s famous for founding PayPal), writes that he’s “thrilled” to join Google to help build “new, open and better ways for users to connect with others.”

Slide founder and CEO Max Levchin

Though Slide had fallen behind the pack on social gaming, payments and virtual goods after its early success as a MySpace slideshow widget and a Facebook application maker, the basic idea behind the acquisition is to help make Google social. Om has argued that Google is fundamentally unable to “get” the social web because its background is in engineering, not empathy. I don’t fully buy that argument — it’s not like the kids at Facebook are Mother Teresa, and further, Mark Zuckerberg is an engineer too — but I do think that Google will have to change its mindset to succeed with social.

The issue of Google and social is probably the No. 1 topic of intrigue in Silicon Valley right now, with management appointmentsproduct leaks and side comments being avidly dissected by press and techies alike. So here’s my take:

The main reason Google is having trouble competing with Facebook is because the latter has a six-year head start. Facebook has by far the biggest social product, and it’s defined the category through its product releases. But Facebook is, by design, fundamentally boring, and that’s largely why it hasn’t gone the way of trendy sites like MySpace and Friendster. The company has succeeded by encouraging its users and developers to make the site interesting through contributing their own creations, like baby pictures and mafia games.

Facebook’s main contributions to its success are keeping the lights on (which is no small feat; look at MySpace and Friendster) and figuring out ways to induce its users to share more and spread the site further. For instance, one of the most significant things Facebook has done was to internationalize by inviting users to translate the site. It’s an incredibly successful example of crowdsourcing. That simple act of empowerment and letting go is what “getting social” is really about. Yes, Google needs a culture shift, but it’s more about learning to rely less on algorithms and more on users themselves.

Anyway, enough punditry, let’s get back to Slide — which, it should be said, made its investors their money back but failed to live up to lofty expectations, in part because it picked the wrong battles by trying to follow trends and drastically changing its strategy on a regular basis. Slide is not like Facebook; in fact, it’s the opposite of Facebook, one of those developers that makes Facebook’s platform fun, if things like SuperPoke are your idea of fun.

Google engineering director David Glazer

Glazer, a long-time champion of social within Google, did give some insight into how the company sees the social situation in his blog post announcing the Slide acquisition. Glazer says a lot of the right stuff, including the key line: “the web is about people.” He talks up the possibility of using social and personal information in “open, transparent and interesting (and fun!) ways.”

With regard to Slide specifically, Glazer calls out Slide’s history of connecting users across multiple platforms and its potential to help Google’s ongoing efforts to make its products “more socially aware” and do so “across the web.” Lastly, he tries out a new motto on us: “We can’t wait to work together to give people more and better tools to communicate and connect.” (That’s a bit different from Google’s official mission — “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”)

The recurring theme from both Glazer and Levchin is that Slide works on a lot of different platforms — not just Facebook, but MySpace, hi5, Bebo, Orkut and Friendster. That’s somewhat in line with Google’s furthest-along work on social, which is around helping establish open social web standards that work behind the scenes to make social data compatible and accessible. And of course, a more open approach is how Google successfully took on the iPhone juggernaut with Android. Indeed, “openness” may well be Google’s biggest weapon versus Facebook, but that word means far too many different things, most of them far too wonky. The real key will be serving users better through a more open approach — and convincing them that’s what they want.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

Why Google Should Fear the Social Web

Please see the disclosure about Facebook in my bio.