Can Google Actually Be Successful at Social Media?

There’s been a lot of talk about the upcoming Google Me. Thus far, Google has excelled at engineering sites, but has struggled when it comes to social networking sites. We need look no further than orkut, google wave and google buzz for examples.

There is no doubt that google is smart with great talent and no shortage of cash, but they’ve never come anywhere near Facebook, Twitter or even MySpace’s success in the social networking universe. Why is that?

Some may argue that Facebook has just been lucky and they were in the right place at the right time. But I think it’s a lot more than luck. I think it has to do with culture.

The Cultural Divide

Recently, I was reading Tony Hsieh’s book about founding zappos.com and he makes the compelling point that culture is everything. Zappos’s culture of outstanding customer service along with being fun (and a little quirky) is what separate’s them from being just another shoe company.

And in the same way, Google’s culture has truly shaped them into what they are today. Look at their well-known products: Gmail, Google Calendar, and (of course) Google Search.

They all share a common set of traits:

  • Graphically Sparse: They are minimalist with simple designs and very few graphics. It’s obvious that a designer is not running the show at google.

  • Fast: All of google’s apps are optimized to run at lightning speed. In fact, the most distinctive thing to me about google chrome (their browser) is how darn fast it is. It’s almost painful for me to go back to the slowness of IE after regularly using chrome.

  • Efficient: Not only are they fast from a performance perspective, but they make it very easy to perform their task in as few steps as possible. It’s almost as if they’ve optimized not only the code, but the process of each task such as adding an event to a calendar (eg – just type “7pm at george’s”).

All of these leads to great software, but it’s a very specific kind of software. It definitely solves a problem in an efficient manner, but you could argue that there’s just no heart. And that in squeezing every last ounce of inefficiency out of the process they’ve also removed some of the humanity — It’s truly an engineer’s company.

They problem is that engineers (in general) aren’t that interested in being social. I think the reason is that being social requires doing things in a not so efficient way. You have to “make small talk”. It requires talking about the weather and sports, along with the myriad of other mundane stuff that most engineers simply see as a waste of time. Paul Graham said it best:

The main reason nerds are unpopular is that they have other things to think about. Their attention is drawn to books or the natural world, not fashions and parties. They’re like someone trying to play soccer while balancing a glass of water on his head

I’ll bet if you were to poll the employees at google, many of them would say that spending time on Facebook was a waste of time. And therein lies the problem for google when making any kind of social app — it’s just not in their DNA.

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