Google to unveil social networking feature

Google Inc. may have gotten itself unfriended by Facebook.

The Silicon Valley search giant will unveil a social networking feature this fall, said Chief Executive Eric Schmidt, confirming that the company was building a product to put it in direct competition with Facebook and its 500 million users.

Google will introduce what Schmidt referred to as "a social layer" into its existing suite of online search, video and mapping products. For months, Google has been making acquisitions and recruiting talent for the secretive project dubbed "Google Me."

The speculation intensified in August when Google bought Angstro, a company that organizes news for social networks, and hired its co-founder Rohit Khare. A few weeks earlier, Google paid $182 million for Slide Inc., an Internet startup that owed much of its success to building applications for Facebook. Google also recruited Max Levchin, Slide's chief executive and a co-founder of PayPal Inc., to help lead its social media efforts.

But it wasn't until Tuesday that Schmidt, speaking to a group of reporters in Arizona, tipped the company's hand, though he would not describe the specifics of the new product.

Google will be going up against the entrenched Facebook, which has essentially tripled in size every year since it was founded in 2004. This year, Facebook passed Google to become the most trafficked website in the nation.

More users spending time on Facebook — to share links, videos and updates — means less activity on the open Internet, which is Google's main playing field.

Because of that, analysts have said, Google is eager to establish itself — and its $20-billion online advertising business — in the social sphere.

Google has made attempts at social networking before but met with little success. Its Buzz product, for creating Twitter-like status updates, has not caught on, and its Wave messaging software was discontinued this year after it failed to gain traction among users.

Google has a social networking site, Orkut, but it has not achieved widespread popularity in the U.S., despite enjoying a strong market position for years in Brazil.

david.sarno@latimes.com

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