Google Addressing the "Facebook issue"

I’ve been slammed with two financings but this news merits taking time on a Sunday night to blog… Ever since word got out that Brad Fitzpatrick (previously chief architect at Six Apart) had joined Google people had a pretty clear idea what Brad’s thoughts on the social graph meant–Google was going to get into the identity & relationship federation game.

There are an increasing number of new “social applications” as well as traditional application which either require the “social graph” or that could provide better value to users by utilizing information in the social graph. What I mean by “social graph” is a the global mapping of everybody and how they’re related, as Wikipedia describes and I talk about in more detail later. Unfortunately, there doesn’t exist a single social graph (or even multiple which interoperate) that’s comprehensive and decentralized. Rather, there exists hundreds of disperse social graphs, most of dubious quality and many of them walled gardens.

Currently if you’re a new site that needs the social graph (e.g. to provide one fun & useful feature (e.g. where are your friends traveling and when?), then you face a much bigger problem then just implementing your main feature. You also have to have usernames, passwords (or hopefully you use OpenID instead), a way to invite friends, add/remove friends, and the list goes on. So generally you have to ask for email addresses too, requiring you to send out address verification emails, etc. Then lost username/password emails. etc, etc. If I had to declare the problem statement succinctly, it’d be: People are getting sick of registering and re-declaring their friends on every site., but also: Developing “Social Applications” is too much work.

The real question was when Google was going to move and how hard they were going to push. According to TechCrunch, who’s gotten some folks to ignore the NDAs they’ve signed with Google, the date is November 5 and the push will be significant under the perceived threat from the traction (imagined and real) that the Facebook platform is getting.

Note that this is a much bigger play than federating social networks. This is about federating the broad notion of social identities, including the rich meta-data, e.g., social relationships across many channels (FB, MySpace, email, IM, Twitter, etc.), that goes with them.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a partner of mine years ago when we were looking at Friendster. We both realized that social networks were really applications built on top of a simple social software foundation with three key pieces:

  • Identity
  • Meta-data
  • Policy

In general, this is a good thing for startups who don’t want to reinvent the wheel. It is another emerging platform and a big new piece in the social infrastructure puzzle. It is also a great Google response to Facebook’s secret plan (since Google doesn’t have a huge + successful social application to protect it can be more open + monetize in other ways). Last but not least, Google’s approach, on the surface, promises more freedom and independence for those building on top of Google as opposed to Facebook.

Still there are two big issues to think about:

  • Building a business on top of somebody’s SaaS/Web services platform carries a lot more risk than building a business on top of a traditional installed product, e.g., Window or MS Office. What will be Google’s service agreement? What promises will they make to a budding ecosystem? Will they keep them?
  • This type of massive federation project can only be pulled off by a major power and only one that is trusted by both consumers and other vendors. The privacy implications are significant. In a world where some people are questioning the reality of Google’s “do no harm” pledge, some resistance is inevitable. Beyond that, I wonder how easy it will be to come up with simple policy management of privacy & data sharing in this environment.

Facebook’s weakness in this case is its strength–the core Facebook social application is the main traffic generator for all applications built on the FB platform. Discovery and traffic generation are in many cases more important than purely technical leverage. It is not clear how Google will attempt to address this issue to drive adoption of its social platform APIs. I hope the answer goes well beyond SEO/SEM.

About Simeon Simeonov

Entrepreneur. Investor. Trusted advisor.
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