Every time Google comes out with a new service, pundits rush to assure us that it’s going to kill this or that startup. Or the skeptical ones that it’s an attempt to kill this or that startup but won’t because it sucks in this way or that. As usual, Google Buzz, announced today and scheduled to roll out to Gmail users in coming days, is neither.
The social updating services Google Buzz offers certainly resemble those variously offered by Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and others. And there’s little doubt that Google executives are concerned that those fast-growing services could siphon off attention and eventually ad dollars from its core search service. But it’s also a dead-obvious thing for Google to take its Gmail service, used by some 175 million people a month, and graft social services atop them. O’Reilly Answers has a nice summary of those features.
Although Google Buzz looks like a me-too service–and frankly it is in some ways–it does start with a couple of potent advantages. For one, as Tim O’Reilly notes, it’s starting with a huge user base. And Gmail already isn’t just an email box. It now incorporates chat, the Google Voice phone service, and other optional add-ons such as a view of your Google Docs. In that sense, adding another communications services isn’t a big stretch. Suddenly, Gmail is the place where you communicate in all kinds of ways.
Not least, Google’s knowledge of people’s preferences and connections could go a long way toward providing the filter that every other social service lacks. Facebook, Twitter, you name it–it’s nearly impossible to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Google’s promising that it can provide that filter with some simple tools such as an “unlike” button for posts you don’t care about, which then will inform what posts you might see in the future. If it works, Google Buzz will be successful. But that’s far from certain.
Google’s challenges here are many: It’s the organic simplicity of Facebook and Twitter that has helped them catch fire, and Google Buzz. Yahoo (which has its own quite different Buzz service) has tried to turn its email service into a broad social network by adding similar services. By most accounts that hasn’t succeeded because the multiplicity of services is just too confusing. Google has the same problem, as Danny Sullivan notes. And where’s Google Wave, which itself was supposed to be the brave new social future of email, in all this?
Danny’s colleague at Search Engine Land, Matt McGee, raises a thornier issue: Do people really want to mix business with pleasure? Email has quite different purposes than social networking. I’m betting a fair number of people don’t want their Gmail messages (which many probably use for work) intermingled with their social updates. Yes, Google’s providing controls over what appears where or to whom, but that may be a click or two too many for most people.
I haven’t been able to try it out yet, so I can’t judge how well Google Buzz works. Maybe it will be just another Google product that goes nowhere. But I also think Google’s on to something–as Microsoft’s slam and Yahoo’s “we were there first” protest both prove. And it has the resources to become a social powerhouse–even if that potential has produced little so far. Neither Facebook nor Twitter executives need lose sleep over it for now, but neither have they won the game. The evolution of online communications is far from over.