MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--Google is determined not to be left behind by the social-media revolution.
The company wants to take what it does best--organizing Web content by relevancy--and apply it to social media, perhaps the most disorganized segment of the Web. Google Buzz is its most ambitious attempt to do just that, marrying the Gmail Web interface with status updates and media-sharing technology in an attempt to convince the social media addicts of the world to spend more time on Google's sites than on competitors like Facebook or Twitter; generating valuable data in the process.
"It has become a core belief of ours that organizing the social information on the Web is a Google-scale problem," said Todd Jackson, Gmail product manager, demonstrating Google Buzz at the company's headquarters a day before Tuesday's event. An astounding amount of social-media content is produced every day, across Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, and personal blogs, and Google's faith that it could one day index and organize the entire Internet has been shaken by this explosion in Web content.
Somebody has to try, according to Google engineers. "A lot of the world's information is what's happening with my friends," said Bradley Horowitz, vice president of product management at the company. "We can't achieve (Google's) mission unless we solve these parts of that problem."
However, they see not only an opportunity to unify the social Web and make things easier for users, but a chance to erode Facebook's advantage in the reams of user data it has amassed behind closed walls that Google--and Google's advertisers--can't see. The only way they'll be able to do that is by creating a system that is as compelling and easy to use as Facebook.
Google is attempting to do this by taking Gmail, one of its more popular products, and integrating Buzz directly into the Gmail interface. Users can link their Twitter, Flickr, Picasa, and Google Reader accounts to their Buzz streams to see information produced by friends on those networks, as well as updates posted directly to the Buzz stream.
Google thinks it can build a competitive advantage in social media by focusing on relevancy and ranking within a social network. For example, Buzz users will be able to see all the content produced by those who they are following, but they'll also be able to see content produced by people they aren't following if their friends "liked" or commented on that content.
They'll also be able to train that algorithm by clicking "Not interested" on these "recommended" status updates if they don't wish to see that particular type of update again. Google thinks users might see an advantage if they can lower the ranking of oft-repeated types of content--such as the what-I-had-for-breakfast update--without having to banish that friend's content from their feed.
The idea is to take the thinking behind core Google concepts such as PageRank and quality score and apply it to social media, and Buzz is an early example of that process at Google, Jackson said. Expect to see further updates, as Buzz fits right into Google's classic strategy of launching a product as soon as possible and making constant updates.
Getting Buzz when you're on the move
And on the mobile side of the world, where social media can be combined with location, Google wants to allow phone users to see a wealth of data about what's happening around them and get in on the location-aware services bandwagon.
Google Buzz for Mobile will essentially be a competitor to services like Foursquare and Gowalla, allowing users to "check in" by updating their Buzz status with a Google Maps link to their location. You'll be able to do this right from Google's mobile home page, and Google is also releasing a Web application for Google Buzz that will work on iPhones and Android phones.
And within Google Maps for Mobile, the company's improved mapping application, users will be able to see public Buzz content posted from mobile phones around their location, said Vic Gundotra, vice president of engineering at Google. That includes quick reviews of restaurants in the area, updates on traffic snarls further along the route, or anything else imaginable.
For those who haven't drunk from the Foursquare pitcher just yet, bear in mind that the location part of a Buzz status update is opt-in: you'll have to manually declare your location, and can post Buzz updates without having to share your exact whereabouts.
This brings up a key factor in how Google is pitching Buzz. In order to attract users, it has to offer enough privacy safeguards to allow them to live their online lives in a semi-private fashion. But it also wants to open up that data to the wider Web, where it can be analyzed and dissected to glean information about trends that advertisers demand.
One of the issues with a service like Facebook is that so much of its content is walled-off from search engines and the general public. That's nice for users, but bad for search engines and marketers, and so Facebook has gently tried to encourage its users to open up their profiles.
Buzz users can choose to make a new post public or private before publishing. Public messages are distributed to one's followers, but they are also posted to one's Google Profile, where they can be searched, indexed, and viewed by anyone. Private Buzz messages can be sent to an unlimited number of subgroups within one's follower list, separating work contacts from drinking buddies, family and groups of friends that don't travel in the same circles. That would appear to give enough cover to those who want to make their online lives semi-public, but also placate Google and its advertisers' hunger for data on how people are spending their time both online and offline.
Buzz will take some time to gather the momentum that other social media sites have enjoyed. For example, one key omission is the inability to update those external service from within the Buzz stream: you can't update your Twitter feed with your status with a Buzz post, even though you can see what your Twitter contacts are doing in Buzz.
Google said it was working on that feature, but declined to say why it decided to leave that out at launch. Presumably, the company would prefer to build a network within Buzz that keeps those updates in house, at least at first. But those who have already established themselves as frequent Twitter users might not see a lot of value in a service that doesn't allow them to post to Twitter.
2010 is an important year for Google's social media strategy. The company has hired several veterans of the social Web to build out a new team, and executives promised a lot more to come with services like Buzz over the course of the year to erase the memories of Google as a social-media also-ran.
The problem, however, will be the increasing backlash Google is seeing from the general public over how much data the company already controls on their online habits. Will they want to take it a step further? If not, Google's social skills will have taken another hit.
Listen to Google co-founder Sergey Brin talk about Buzz with Larry Magid, in an interview recorded after Tuesday's announcement.