January 22, 2004 6:00 PM PST

Google spawns social networking service

Google tip-toed into the hot market of online social networks with the quiet launch of Orkut.com on Thursday.

The search company, which is expected to go public this year, is flexing its power with its Internet fans by constantly offering new services, including comparison shopping and news search. Orkut could be the clearest signal that Google's aspirations don't end with search.

"Orkut is an online trusted community Web site designed for friends. The main goal of our service is to make the social life of yourself and your friends more active and stimulating," according to the Web site, which states that the service is "in affiliation with Google."

A Google representative said that the site is the independent project of one of its engineers, Orkut Buyukkokten, who works on user interface design for Google. Buyukkokten, a computer science doctoral candidate at Stanford University before joining Google, created Orkut.com in the past several months by working on it about one day a week--an amount that Google asks all of its engineers to devote to personal projects. Buyukkokten, with the help of a few other engineers, developed Orkut out of his passion for social networking services.

Google spokeswoman Eileen Rodriguez said that despite Orkut's affiliation, the service is not part of Google's product portfolio at this time. "We're always looking at opportunities to expand our search products, but we currently have no plans in the social networking market."

Still, Google owns the technology developed by its employees, Rodriguez said.

Orkut is a "trusted" social network, meaning that you must be invited to join. The service sent out thousands of invitations Thursday to welcome individuals, according to Google.

Google regularly throws out new products and services to see if they stick. Google News, for example, began as the personal project of Google engineer Krishna Bharat in 2002. While Google still runs news search in "beta" form, it is gaining a wide audience on the Internet and is prominently promoted on Google's home page.

Orkut, if adopted into the Google family, would signal a dramatic shift in the company's direction, similar to its acquisition of Pyra Labs and Blogger, a tool for self-publishing to the Internet. The goal of a social networking service is a far cry from Google's long-stated mission of organizing the world's information. Instead of helping connect people to information on the Web, it would be helping people connect with other people.

It also once again raises the notion that Google aspires to become a portal like Yahoo, something that the company has long denied. Google already helps people shop, read news, thwart pop-up advertisements, get stock information and publish to the Web. With a social networking component, at the very least, it would likely feed investor demand for a public offering because of its diversified assets, financial analysts say. Investors expect Google to go public sometime in the spring.

Social networking sites like Friendster and Meetup.com are attracting fevered attention from Silicon Valley celebrities. Tim Koogle, Yahoo co-founder and its former chief executive officer, recently joined the board of Friendster and invested more than $1 million, along with former PayPal CEO Peter Thiel and Google board member Ram Shriram. Venture capitalists Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Benchmark Capital have already invested $10 million in the site.

eBay founder Pierre Omidyar also recently invested several million dollars and joined the board of directors of Meetup.com, a networking site that fosters offline meetings between interest groups and is fueling political organizing for presidential hopefuls Howard Dean and John Kerry. The Evite invitation service has moved to compete with Friendster, too.

Google itself has offered to buy Friendster, according to sources. Google declined to comment on rumors.

Still, the attention is inspiring me-too efforts by Internet mainstays. Personals service Match.com is planning to enter the market, Piper Jaffray senior analyst Safa Rashtchy said. Yahoo is a likely candidate, too, for creating a social networking service on top of its Yahoo Groups service, Rashtchy said.

"I'd be surprised if Yahoo's not thinking about this already," he said.

The allure is in hosting a never-ending party of online connections, and eventually inspiring people to pay for it. Social networks are increasingly inciting people to spend hours online with their sites. Friendster, for example, had roughly 1 million people spend an average of 35 minutes on its site in November, according to figures from Nielsen/NetRatings, a market researcher. That amount bested time spent with Yahoo Groups, which was about 29 minutes.

Even though social networks have drawn interest from Web surfers and investors, the business model to sustain them has not been proven yet. Sponsored search listings are Google's primary means for making money, and although such text ads are peppered throughout sites like Friendster, people click on ads more often when they are searching for something.

One trend that could affect the market opportunity for social networking sites is consumers' growing willingness to pay for online services such as dating. Yet it's uncertain that online networking will prove indispensable in that regard.

For Buyukkokten at least, social engineering is a passion and the evolution of similar projects. He created two social networking sites--Clubnexus and Incircle--while at Stanford to help students stay connected. "The spirit of Orkut speaks to what engineers are capable of doing here at Google in that 20 percent of time," Rodriguez said.

CNET News.com's Jim Hu contributed to this report.

10 comments

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OutOrIn.NET vs. aSmallWorld
Social Networking or Gated Online Communities...The net seems to get divided into people with memberships to exclusive velvet rope sites like OutOrIn.net and aSmallWorld.net and the "Friendsters"...which very much mirrors the real world..is this good or bad?
Posted by marcl (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
It Makes Sense
I would like to be invited to aSmallWorld.net, but I understand perfectly why they would chose to do this. I mean look at Friendster how are we even supposed to use that thing. There are around 16 million and people rarely use it.
Posted by cool_splash1 (3 comments )
Link Flag
aSmallWorld I used to make sense! Now OutorIn makes sense to me!!
You are right is used to make sense to restrict access on a site for 50.000, what about a site that plans to grow it's members to 3.000.000 and more!!!! aSmallWorld is becoming huge, and certainly not exclusive any more!!! Look at <a>www.outorin.org</a> they are promising and kepp their amount of members under 50.000 that is definetly the most exclusive site on the net, and worth being caled Gated Community..if outorin.org keeps it's promise, and i amsure they will, cause they do not want to becoming another blown up Gated Site..they will be very successful..as a exclusive gated community..Greetings
Posted by uemailme (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
aSmallWorld it used to make sense! Now OutorIn makes sense to me!!
You are right it used to make sense to restrict access on a site for 50.000, what about a site that plans to grow it's members to 3.000.000 and more!!!! aSmallWorld is becoming huge, and is certainly not exclusive any more!!! Look at <a>www.outorin.org</a> they are promising to keep the amount of members under 50.000 that is definetly the most exclusive site on the net, and worth being caled Gated Community..if outorin.org keeps it's promise, and i amsure they will, cause they do not want to becoming another blown up Gated Site..they will be very successful..as a exclusive gated community..Greetings
Posted by uemailme (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
the best today is Welcom (World Economic Leader COM munity), Snob.ru and the indetronable very discreet IEE/Yoctocosmos. I am on Qube from Quintessentially, Elixio, Whytegold, asmallworld, Diamond Lounge etc... I propose you an invitation in a social network you are not in the spirit of exchange if you wish? this is the list :
asw,
whytegold,
Qube from Quintessentially
Diamond Lounge
Elixio
Artipolis
squa.re
straata (old evlvetrop)
and many
It just miss me the OutorIn , i exchange 2 exclusive network against 1 place on OutorIn
are you allright?
My email is jbpmrddv@gmail.com
Posted by jbpmrddv (3 comments )
Link Flag
"OUTORIN.ORG"....It sounds like a joke!!!.....Sites like ASW, decayenne, elixio, cube are the true gated communities....Im sure many of us know this already, you know who you are..:)
Posted by JenniferC1983 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
the best today is Welcom (World Economic Leader COM munity), Snob.ru and the indetronable very discreet IEE/Yoctocosmos. I am on Qube from Quintessentially, Elixio, Whytegold, asmallworld, Diamond Lounge etc... I propose you an invitation in a social network you are not in the spirit of exchange if you wish? this is the list :
asw,
whytegold,
Qube from Quintessentially
Diamond Lounge
Elixio
Artipolis
squa.re
straata (old evlvetrop)
and many
It just miss me the OutorIn , i exchange 2 exclusive network against 1 place on OutorIn
are you allright?
My email is jbpmrddv@gmail.com
Posted by jbpmrddv (3 comments )
Link Flag
Google social networking can be shaping the vision of social media using google blogger via blogspot and other google friends connect websites we love it http://emilcohen.com
Posted by emilcohen (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The best today is Welcom (World Economic Leaders COmunity) and IEE/Yoctocosmos (located in Monaco) they are partners
Posted by jbpmrddv (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
If you're looking for a social networking website where you can build your private social network, look no further than Zovue.com. Zovue is a great social networking website that has VERY customizable privacy settings. On Zovue.com you can decide who is in your network and who can see what. Thereis lots of storage space for online photo sharing and online video sharing, but what I like best is that I can select who sees my content once I've uploaded it. Zovue is targeted at professionals and is not full of crowding apps and games.

Using a PRIVATE social network like Zovue.com (or Orkut) gives you the power to select who's in your network.
Posted by FredRocks (5 comments )
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