Rival Social Networks Take Stage at Web 2.0

Google's Vic Gundotra addresses Facebook's 'huge advantage'

In virtually back-to-back sessions Wednesday, executives from Google and Facebook were interviewed on-stage at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco. Not surprisingly, the rivalry between the Google +social network and Facebook was a big topic of conversation.

For example Vic Gundotra, who's leading the Google+ initiative, was asked about a statement made by former Facebook president Sean Parker earlier this week—that it will be difficult for Google to overcome Facebook's lead. Gundotra agreed that Facebook has a "huge advantage," and that Google will probably lose if it tries to take on Facebook directly.

"We're going to play a different game," Gundotra said. Specifically, Google isn't trying to build a standalone social network, but is instead integrating Google+ with all of its existing (and popular) consumer products like Gmail.

Gundotra also pointed to Google+'s sharing model—where users choose to send updates, photos, and other content to different "circles" of connections, as a differentiator, comparing that ability to "curate" to the more automated sharing that Facebook is promoting with its new "open graph. "There's a reason why every thought in your head does not come out of your mouth," he said.

In turn, Facebook chief technology officer Bret Taylor discussed Google+, saying Google's efforts are "validating" for Facebook. Sure, he acknowledged "It's really interesting and fun for conferences to have some compelling competition to talk about," but he argued that it's more significant that both companies are working to add social elements throughout the Web.

So how is Google+ actually doing? Gundotra said it now has 40 million registered users. Pressed on whether those users are actually coming back, Gundotra added that in the past 100 days or so, Google+ users have uploaded 3.4 billion photos, so there seems to be real engagement.

The initiative was famously criticized by a Google engineer who accidently posted his extensive thoughts in public (on Google+, of course). The engineer called Google+ a "pathetic afterthought" that fails to build an ecosystem of social products similar to the one that made Facebook a success. Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who was also on-stage, deflected that point by joking that he "didn't make it past the first 1,000 pages" of the engineer's post.

Gundotra said there are plans to open Google+ to outside apps, but Google is going to proceed cautiously. He said he doesn't want to launch the platform before the details are worked out—a more hurried approach would risk alienating developers if Google has to make big changes that threaten their apps.

"We want developers to have high confidence that they can trust Google," Gundotra said.

He made a few other promises, saying Google+ would soon support accounts from Google Apps business products, and that it would eventually add support for user pseudonyms as well.

Taylor also talked about some of the changes at Facebook. Asked whether the site's new Timeline feature could become a format for a new kind of advertising, he said the team was more focused on "creating the experience" and hasn't really considered ads.

Like Gundotra, Taylor referred back to some of Parker's comments, agreeing that Facebook needs to serve its "power" users who usually helped bring their friends and family to the site. However, he said, "I worry we've gone towards complexity too much."