Six months after its debut, it's becoming clear that Google Buzz has yet to become the social-media breakthrough that Google craves.
That's because if a Buzz falls on the Internet and nobody hears it, it never really happened. Popular tech podcaster and blogger Leo Laporte discovered over the weekend that two weeks' worth of Buzz posts set to be public never actually showed up in his public feed.
After investigating, Google discovered on Monday a "rare" but clearly significant bug in Buzz: if one of Laporte's Buzz followers deleted his or her Google Account, the system would not deliver public posts to the rest of Laporte's followers, Google said in the comment stream of a Buzz post from Laporte Monday. The company is in the process of fixing the bug, it said. UPDATE 4:55 p.m.: Google said it fixed the bug Monday afternoon.
Perhaps the real story, however, is that six months went by without anybody running into such a serious bug. Not to mention that for two weeks not a single one of Laporte's 18,735 (as of Monday morning) Google Buzz followers noticed, or bothered to wonder why such a prolific tech commentator's Buzz feed suddenly went dark. Laporte's TWiT (This Week in Tech) podcasts usually rank among the most-downloaded podcasts from the iTunes Store and he has 222,820 followers on Twitter: it's hard to imagine that if either channel abruptly went dark for two weeks, no one would have noticed.
Google Buzz went live in early February with visions of combining a stream of updates from services like Twitter with the engagement of services like Facebook or Friendfeed, giving Google a foothold in social media. Ever since Google said in February that "tens of millions of people have checked Buzz out" Google has consistently refused to state how many people are actively using Google Buzz, and it's still unwilling to reveal that number.
Laporte's experience, however, shows that the actual number of users itself isn't necessarily as important as the degree to which those users are engaged with the service. Social-media fans have a variety of outlets through which to share thoughts, links, and discussions, but there's only so much time even the most obsessed can spend on any one particular service, and people are likely to stick with the ones that generate the most attention for their musings. That's not good news for Google as it tries to make Buzz relevant in a world where Facebook has 500 million users and Twitter has over 100 million.
"With so many streams flowing by and so many sources and people demanding my attention, even the strong soldiers that fatigue during battle are left behind in our own self-directed charge up the mountain," wrote social-media expert Louis Gray, who is also managing director of new media at Paladin Advisors Group, in response to Laporte's post. "One of the hardest things to do for anyone is to find real value amidst the noise, and the massive volume means that people can get missed."
Only a few social-media services truly matter at the scale at which Google likes to operate, and Buzz is clearly not yet one of them. Google appears to have the same problem in social media that Yahoo and Microsoft have trying to compete in search: it's going to take a huge breakthrough to get the heaviest users of social media to allocate time to something new. Incremental advances can be quickly duplicated by the incumbents, just as when Yahoo and Microsoft roll out interesting new search features, Google can easily follow suit.
Google still hopes to be the tool that could unlock value from social-media updates and posts. "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, while demonstrating Google Buzz in February. With Google Wave having crashed on the rocks, and Buzz momentum faltering, Google is preparing to tackle this problem once again with the expected launch of a social-media service called Google Me.
But Laporte is starting to wonder about the value of social media in general. "I feel like I've woken up to a bad social media dream in terms of the content I've put in others' hands. It's been lost, and apparently no one was even paying attention to it in the first place," he wrote in a blog post.
That means the whole episode could have a silver lining for Google. If social-media growth falters because of growing stream fatigue, Google executives can rest easier that they'll have more time to deal with a possible shift in the quintessential Internet experience from solitary searches for information (Google's forte) to information pushed to users by their friends or declared interests (Facebook's big bet). Laporte sounds like he's going to spend more time on his blog, which can be found and indexed much more easily by Google's technology than his contributions to social-media services.
Big businesses will spend their money with whichever service (search or social) delivers the best environment for their ads, and the stakes are quite high for Google as it attempts to find an elusive second revenue stream to its search-ad cash cow.
But when one of the most prominent technology pundits on the Web can't build a loyal following on Buzz, it's clear Google still hasn't figured out how to tap into a fast-growing source of time spent on the Internet.