A Look Back at Google’s History of Social Media Failures

Orkut, Buzz, Latitude, and it's still in the game

In some alternate social media history, the term Crush List is a verb—meaning to elevate a friend to the most prominent position within one’s social network. And somewhere MySpace founder Tom Anderson is cursing the name Orkut Buyukkokten—not Mark Zuckerberg. And in this reality, social media giant Google has more than a billion people on Orkut, the service that defined the next great Internet era after search.

Orkut’s official release date was January 2004; Facebook’s was February that year. In this reality, this week, Google announced it would shut down the network.

The loss of Orkut is yet another sign of how social still vexes Google, a company that tinkers with autonomous cars. Sure, it has Google+, but even that strategy has its troubles to the point that tech blogs are reporting on its imminent demise, too.

With Orkut gone, it’s a good time to reflect on Google’s contributions to social media:

Orkut almost had its moment. Just ask Brazil and India where the site actually introduced the masses to social networking. In Brazil, Orkut reached 30 million users at one point. Then Facebook entered the market in 2011, ahead of its eventual IPO, and Brazilians never looked back.

Dodgeball was a social media acquisition from 2005, brought to you by the co-founder who eventually built Foursquare. Dodgeball was an early attempt at location-based social media for stalking your “crushes.” Those were likely the same people you Crush Listed on Orkut.

Latitude. Like one Dodgeball failure wasn’t enough, Google folded it into Latitude, then closed that location-based service last year.

Google Buzz was a disaster from the start, and it led to one of Google’s bigger regulatory smackdowns. In 2010, Google tried to launch this turnkey social network that could immediately compete with Facebook and Twitter. Google basically tried to force feed a social network to gmail users, whose online contacts became their Buzz connections. Buzz became a privacy nightmare even in the social media realm, and the service was shut down in December 2011.

YouTube represents one of Google’s best opportunities in social media, if it can get its users to register and log in. Of course, even that stirred up user outcry, which is pretty easy to do on the video-sharing site. Last year, Google instituted new policies that made YouTube visitors sign in with Google+ if they want to leave comments. It’s the kind of forced integration that has many Google users wary of its namesake social network.

Google+ is the social layer that connects Android and search and YouTube and all of Google. There are questions about the viability of the stand-alone social network, but as this single log-in provider—an ID badge—it is considered Google’s great unifier. Google+ did recently lose its top executive and advocate Vic Gundotra, and Larry Page said he is still committed to the actual network, even though Google is clearly scaling back some of its presence. Google said at its developers conference last week that some Google+ information and profile photos would not show up in search results anymore.

Waze, Twitch and the future of Google in general will be social. Google bought the social-mapping site Waze for more than $1 billion last year. UPDATE: And there have been reports that it is interested in buying video-game streaming service Twitch, a popular source of teen entertainment. On Tuesday, Google did buy the music service Songza. Despite a history full of failed projects and brief moments of user tumult, Google will acquire a social presence where it can and weave one into all other properties—YouTube Music, Hangouts messaging, payments, shopping and gmail.