Has Google Learned From Social Failure?

Why Google+ might succeed where Buzz failed

With Google+, it looks like the search giant may have finally built a social product that people will use.

Shortly after Google announced the new social networking service, executives Bradley Horowitz and Vic Gundotra (who are leading the company's social efforts) spoke with Adweek about the lessons they've learned from past failures, both inside and outside Google. The company's most infamous social fumble was its product Google Buzz, which many users saw as a violation of their privacy—as did the Federal Trade Commission. Horowitz said that's symptomatic of a larger problem that he called "overfriending." When you're friends with too many people on a service like Facebook, then you don't want to share anything private.

Google+, on the other hand, introduces the idea of Circles. Users divide their connections into categories like "friends" and "acquaintances," then they share things (a comment, say, or a photo) with whichever circle they want.

"We've built a product that's good for a shout and good for a whisper," Horowitz said.

There are other pieces to Google+, like Hangout, a video chat service, and Sparks, where users can find and share content around their interests. And unlike Buzz, Google+ feels easy to use and intuitive, rather than overwhelming and confusing—at least judging from an hour or two of poking around. (The service is currently undergoing an invite-only field trial, with members of the media, including Adweek staff, among those receiving the invitation; Google has used similar tactics in the past to launch products like Gmail.) Users just drag and drop their friends into different circles, then when they're ready to share things, they select the appropriate circle from a menu, or choose to share with everyone.

As people wrap their heads around the Circles concept, there will probably be some confusion. For example, it may not be clear that the relationships aren't reciprocal. You can list someone as a close friend, but that friend might say they're only an acquaintance, or leave you out of their Circles entirely. Still, the system is much simpler than Facebook's rather Byzantine privacy controls.

Here's the bigger question: If people like Google+ as a product, will they switch over even though all their friends are still on Facebook? Gundotra thinks they will—he noted that it's normal to belong to multiple online social services, so people don't have to choose between Facebook or Google. And, he argued, Google+ will become even more useful as new features are added in the coming months, especially as it's integrated with existing Google services.

Integration brings a new set of risks—one reason people freaked out about Buzz was the fact that it was part of Gmail. Gundotra said that gradually inviting users into a "field test" will help Google find the right balance between sharing and privacy.

And, he argued, these kinds of social projects are crucial for Google's future, like it or not.

"Our mission statement for years has been to organize the world's information," Gundotra said. "The Web is about a lot more than information now, a lot more than pages. It's about people."