Google's social network has to be mobile-centric to survive

Features Marin Perez 16:29, Dec 06 2010

Google has all the tools to make a credible Facebook competitor but the search giant needs to make this mobile-centric in order to have a fighting chance against the world's largest social network.

We all know that Google is preparing a social networking product that will be its main weapon against Facebook, and a few minor details about Google Me/Google +1/Loop have leaked out. While I'm still skeptical about the search giant's chances in the social space, I do know that this product has to have strong mobile integration baked in from the beginning in order to be successful.

According to TechCrunch, Google is working on at least a native iPhone app of the social product, which could be called Loop. Not much is known about what this will entail except that Google will focus on privacy controls and that it wants to gain as many users as possible.

It's clear why Google has to dive deeper into the social space: it doesn't want to be left out in how people use the Internet. We appear to be in a transition period, as a pure search experience may not be as valuable as a search experience which utilizes your social graph.

Sure, Google News offers you valuable information from around the world but the news stories your Facebook friends like or post may be more relevant. You can draw similar conclusions with products, music and nearly everything else people use Google for. Facebook is flirting with being the most popular site in the world and all that time you spend poking friends and sending status updates are lost advertising opportunities for Google.

The mobile space is even more troubling for Google, as Facebook has more than 200 million active mobile users and it is well on its way to becoming a platform. The Facebook app is routinely the most-downloaded on every platform and it's one of the few apps that mainstream consumers use every day.

I don't like Google's chances because I don't think it fundamentally understands why social networking is important to real people. The search giant is ultimately a search and advertising company and it's not simple to pivot into a new space and be successful. It also doesn't help that Google's CEO routinely says creepy things which may put off some users.

Still, Google has a ton of cash and assets to put into its social product and that gives it a fighting chance. While Google Buzz has been a privacy nightmare and a flop overall, the mobile version and apps where pretty interesting combinations of Twitter and Foursquare. I stopped using Buzz because none of my real friends were on it but I much preferred using it on my phone than in a browser.

When you think about it, Google has all the right building blocks for a great social network: Gmail is used to communicate with many, Picasa is an awesome photo sharing site, Android is becoming one of the most popular platforms in the world and Maps, Latitude, Places and Hotpot can collectively provide a wealth of location-based information that would make this a choice app for phones.

It's going to be tough to roll all of these into a single product that has a pleasing user interface and palatable privacy controls, but the potential is definitely there. Making native apps for every platform is a must, as is making this accessible from a mobile browser using HTML 5.

If you exclude gaming, Facebook is still kind of weak in the multimedia department, as MySpace still kicks its rump when it comes to music. That's where the much-rumored Google Music could give the search giant a leg up against the world's largest social network.

One of the great things about being one of the world's most valuable companies is that Google can always acquire some expertise in the mobile social networking space. If Loopt gets uppity about the potential Loop app name, Google could throw a few million at it and absorb that company's expertise in location-based social networking. If the open source Diaspora ever amounts to anything, Google could also purchase it.

Integrating into Google's corporate culture isn't always easy, though. A few years ago, Google purchased the check-in service Dodgeball and this languished in Googledom. After a few years (and some vesting stock options, I'd imagine), Dodgeball founder Dennis Crowley went off to start Foursquare and kick off the check-in craze.

Whenever we do see this social Google product, I think the company should just bake it in to future versions of Android like it does with Gmail and the Android Market. Sure, it will still be open source and carriers will be able to switch this out like they can with Google's search, but this should ensure that this social networking product will have a large user base.

Can you build a great social product by cobbling together existing pieces? I'm very skeptical of this, but if Google takes a mobile-centric approach, then the chances of success go up dramatically. At the very least, Google taking a deep dive into mobile social networking will force Facebook to up its game and that's a good thing for you and me.

Contact Marin via email or follow @Marinperez on Twitter

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