Revealing Google’s Stealth Social Network Play

This post was collaboratively written on a wiki by Charlene Li, who maintains a focus on Leadership Strategy and Jeremiah Owyang, who maintains a focus on Customer Strategy. Together, we’re covering the convergence of emerging technology at the Altimeter Group.

Google has quietly been launching a social network right under our own chins.  No, it’s not about Google extending Orkut, a social networking platform they developed a few years ago, or growing Google groups, or even launching their own version of a twitter. Instead they’ve been releasing small bits of social networking features, little by little.   Previously, we’ve made the case that email is already the largest social network, however Google’s plans go beyond Gmail.   First, let’s define what to look for, in order to identify what Google is concocting.

Defining Social Networks

To start with, we define a social network as having three baseline components:  1) A profile that contains a person’s information; 2) The ability for people to connect to each other via those profiles, often called a social graph; and 3) the ability to do something useful or valuable they couldn’t have done otherwise.  Features such as discoverability or public access are often cited as social network features, but we believe that the common denominators across most social networks are the three characteristics we listed.

Now that we agree on the definition, we can see that Google is launching each of these features with little fanfare.  Let’s break down what’s happening. Google allows people to:

  • Maintain a rich profile. Google recently launched new features called Google profiles which allows users to upload profile pics, include personal information and preferences, and allow it to be discoverable on the web.  These are coupled with a Google account such as gmail, and is at the core of these efforts.
  • Connect and Communicate With Others. Individuals using the Google profiles can connect to each other and share information using a variety of tools, not all of them necessarily social. For example, Gmail and Google Talk contain not just your contacts, but also understand with whom you communicate the most. Google doesn’t explicitly ask if you’re a ‘friend’ or ‘fan’ of someone, but rather, allows people to connect to each other in a variety of communication tools.  And most recently, Google launched Google Sidewiki, which allows anyone to add comments to any page on the Web with just a Firefox plug-in.
  • Centralize Information In A Useful Way. Allowing people to build profiles and communicate with each other isn’t of much value unless it can provide a more useful experience not previously available.  Google provides a number of tools like Google Wave, a collaboration tool we’ve started to experiment with, Gtalk instant messanger, and Gmail which rivals Facebook’s newsfeed, chat, and inbox respectively.

Google’s Stealth Threat

The difference between Google and destination social networks like MySpace, Friendster, and Facebook is that Google doesn’t have a specific URL. Instead, it is creating elements that envelope the web, by enabling every online (and mobile) activity to possibly be social one –then running it all on their own centralized platform. Google isn’t going after a frontal, brute force assault on Facebook and the other social networks — it simply can’t win at that game on a global basis. Instead Google is pursuing a softer approach, a zen-like attach much like water flowing around a rock.  It is using its strengths — ubiquity and open platforms — to put “social” into every corner of the Web.

This is the stealth threat — that today’s social networks won’t really be losing share to the “Google network”, but rather, that they will become slowly less relevant as EVERYTHING gets social thanks to advances by Google. Their end goal? Google’s social network is designed to exist everywhere –not be centralized in any one location. By the way, two can play at this game and we see Microsoft making similar moves in the future. (Edit: It was pointed out to me that Yahoo! is also making similar moves with its social APIs).

Key Takeaways

1. Enveloping The Social Web Is Core To Google’s Strategy. This is inline with Google’s traditional strategy of organizing the world’s information –then serving up monetization options around it.  Although a few years late to the game, Google’s move is crucial as they already have large amounts of information about what you look for, who you know, and the activities you do. It’s a natural step for them to also organize and make sense of the social and behavioral information that people create. In addition, Google — who already has long term relationships with agencies, brands, and marketers — will be a natural place for companies to look to for advertising and marketing opportunities around social data, rather than new players and start-ups.

2. Google’s Recent Moves Threaten Incumbent Social Networks. Facebook and other competitors will need to quickly spread it’s Facebook Connect platform and evolve it to something that doesn’t even require APIs or registrations.  The challenge with Facebook Connect is it requires the website owner (publisher) and the user to opt-in and allow for content to become social.  With Google’s SideWiki, only the users need to opt-in, which will cause adoption to spread must faster.  Facebook will need to extend it’s inline browser (surfing the web within the context of or developing their own browser to counter Google’s moves.  Facebook’s core conundrum is balancing personal and often private information of its community with the need to expose information in public in order to be relevant in search and eventually advertising.

3. Despite Privacy Concerns, Users Will Continue To Use Google. Although privacy concerns will continue to be the mainstay of objections, the benefits to the common user will outweigh any critics.  We know that people will verbally object to their privacy being an opportunity for another company, yet they continue to behave in a way opposite to their objections.  Why?  For most, they’ve grown to trust players like Google. Or they are willing to give up control of some information in exchange for convenience, such as having social data conveniently show up on Google Maps on your phone. And for others, the price of privacy can be measured by what information they will give up to get ‘free shipping’.  The root concern isn’t broadly about privacy, but specifically about privacy in the context of when you’re not in control of it. Google is highly motivated to maintain the trust of users and will do everything possible to continue earning and deserving that trust.

We’re not the only ones to notice this trend, Search Engine Watch also characterizes Google as a social media company. We hope our viewpoint sheds light to where Google is heading, and hope to hear your viewpoints too.


  1. This is the salient point to me: Google is pursuing a softer approach… much like water flowing around a rock… to put “social” into every corner of the Web.

    Well stated. The future of the web is less about sites and pages; and more about pieces of content and connections that are relevant to users.

  2. Pubsubhubub as means of cross-network messaging for distributed social networks is another data point.

  3. This is an important analysis. It also raises additional questions:

    Is there a scenario in which Facebook and Google can play nice, or is a clash inevitable?

    What role, if any, will Microsoft play in this scene? They seem to be resurgent in some areas and have the patience of Buddha in terms of marketshare gains.

    What would Google’s reaction be, do you think, if (for example) some major brands objected to tools like Sidewiki that could “hijack” the conversations about their brands (in a place that is literally too close to home, i.e., appended to their homepages)? Would GOOG re-trench and re-think rather than stand tall against a raft of complaints?

    Would the smart marketer be better advised to bet their budgets on Google or Facebook? For example, bloggers are already faced with adding FB Connect *or* GOOG Connect to log-in users (or Twitter for that matter). That’s a long-term bet, really, as you wouldn’t want to change horses after gaining a good # of readers…

    And what about Twitter? Using Tweetie on the iPhone gives one a good sense for hwo surfing the Web “within” a Twitter interface might work, and it works rather well. Makes one wonder about the upstart’s own long-term plans/vision?!

    I might have to turn this into a blog post of my own. Thanks for the food for thought, Charlene & Jeremiah!

  4. It will be interesting to see the how the mobile angle plays out especially with respect to privacy. The ubiquitous web forces the question of how much privacy a person is willing to give up to get that “free shipping” vs keeping “big brother” at bay. Do we really want Google and the agencies/advertisers they work with know where we are/what we are doing at every moment? It’s a pay to play mentality (in this case payment is less privacy) that people must be willing to accept. Especially when it comes to mobile applications and capabilities for social commerce.

  5. I’m repeating meself: don’t think about social media, think about socialness. Social media are places socialness is the motivation that took them to lead. What’s more socialness is an experience that one can live also out of the digital space…

  6. I’m surprised yahoo is not discussed. They are doing or have done the same thing.

    • Don – excellent point. I’ll make an amendment and add Yahoo as well. They’ve been doing a lot and it’s an oversight on my part.

      • Don,

        It’s all about head-count and real estate. If we wanted to get into who has the best or most extensible API for “socialness” (insert your nomenclature here), there’s a list of 3-4 other suitors that could follow. Had they made this move 7-8 years ago when they still had strong marketshare over the “original social network” (email), then there would have been a fighting chance. At this point, I can only see their technology being viable by license or acquisition. Hard times down on Mathilda Ave.

  7. Very good analysis, I agree with you :) We can add also iGoogle social gadget to your list of features enabling Google stealth social network (

  8. Social Networking is the next big thing, google can’t stay behind on that! Just look at an average website or blog, it’s full with social connections (facebook, twitter, etc).

  9. Charlene, Jeremiah,

    Very interesting article, thanks for sharing.

    I agree that the URL was the main differenciator between Google and websites like Facebook or Myspace (even though now they are trying to move beyond their own “place”).

    If you think of the web in geographical terms, one can say that Facebook built a place (great one, by the way), that was made for socialization, while Google was just busy adding value to this new geography infrastructure.

    But now Google knows better and it has started selling social “shovels and pickaxes” to everyone in this new social sphere.

    I would definitely not say that Google is a social network, but a social network enabler, which is more powerful to my mind.

    The issue as I see it is whether value will evolve and communities develop quicker in “closed” social networks (like Facebook), or in the open web.

    Seeing Twitter and Google today, I would opt for the second option.

  10. Joe Eisner says:

    You make some great points.

    It seems to me like you’re simultaneously tackling which company or companies win from a business and revenue perspective and how people’s online social interactions evolve from walled gardens to more pervasive/universal socialization across sites and domains–and therefore who wins from an user aggregation perspective.

    While the two are related, they’re not necessarily or even empirically the same. Google isn’t the dominant social glue yet, but makes a lot more money than the more dominant (at least for the time being) Facebook.

    I am a big fan of what Wave could be as a comm & collab. platform, and believe that Wave or the versions of it that IBM or Microsoft will inevitably create will become social aggregation points for a number of reasons, not the least because they offer multiple related sets of functionality via one web interface (vs. many separate parallel-but-separate interfaces), among other things. Perhaps at that point Google will win both in terms of number of socializers and money, or that some other open platform will win hearts and minds (but not money) and Google will win financially but not dominate in numbers of users.

  11. Charlene- good observations. Interesting that even with your insight, you use ‘old’ commenting tools- that only make it easy to view first 4 or 5 comments. Try – been around 2+yr before Sidewiki, and with a few lines of code on your site (no download for your users) you have a comment, in context, sidebar. It is ‘social network in the margin’. Reframe It’s 3rd generation commenting tool, SideWiki, or some one will gain traction (through partners?) and one of these will become as ubiquitous as e-mail.

  12. great article and range of topical ideas. is Google following desire paths or adjusting the pavement to accommodate traffic ahead?

  13. The article pretty clearly states that they are working on proof of concept examples, but I think it’s understandable that they would share that information with the vendors prior to releasing it to the general public. ,

  14. Some small presses finance their operations with book contests. ,

  15. Good and thought provoking article. Nice job bringing up the privacy issues as they relate to more of a stealth play by Google. As all of this data is amassed, it will be very interesting at what point the public starts to speak up about greater constraints when having their usage and personal information tracked and collected. It will be interesting to see how they three their approach together to try and make it work.

  16. Isn’t this concept of the Internet as Social Network the future of the whole Web interface? Wasn’t that kind of the endgame all along anyway? Without judging its value or fright factor, it seems to me that this was always the inevitable upshot of a public domain where individuals and information (via the lone voice or the megaphone of corporations) strive to make themselves known, no?

  17. Nice insights. So Google is a GO master!

  18. It always amazes me how the larger the company, the easier it is to infiltrate the population (and often your target audience). In particular, it is the commercial quality of their approach that makes such a significant impact. The only worthwhile assimilation would be how Budweiser has utilized the Superbowl canvas for any number of years to advertise. Google doesn’t need such a limited canvas, because it can speak through any number of social media lines. This may serve to prove that Google will either be an overwhelming search engine- too much will pop up… or it will bring Google up to new heights!

  19. Social Networking has done a marvelous job in the web, not only from the business industry but also to the people who are in the marketing world. But Social Networking depends on the updates that google made. Thanks for sharing this information.

  20. Typically dislike any form of commenting, but whenever you read a good post at times you just need to get out of those lazy techniques. This is such a post!


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