Can Google Inc. make friends?
The Internet search giant, whose goal is to organize information, will try to organize people with a social networking service designed to rival the growing influence of Facebook Inc.
Google+ is the company’s most ambitious effort yet to keep Web users and advertising dollars from straying to social networking sites.
The project, which Google has been quietly working on for months, has been championed by Google co-founder Larry Page, who, even before taking over as chief executive in April, made social networking a priority.
The move comes as Facebook, which generates $29 billion in annual revenue, threatens to dethrone Google as the Web’s most popular destination. Google has moved too slowly to counter Facebook, industry observers say. Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO for a decade before Page took over the role, said this month that he “screwed up” on social networking. “I clearly knew I had to do something and I failed to do it,” he said.
The social networking bid comes as Google faces increased scrutiny from federal regulators over its business practices and from investors worried about unprecedented spending and hiring. The company’s shares have slid nearly 20% this year over concerns that its growth rate has slowed.
Google is also under fire from Oracle Corp., which is seeking billions of dollars in damages in a patent and copyright infringement case in San Francisco federal court. The case involves Google’s Android software, which is licensed to mobile device makers.
And Microsoft Corp. said Tuesday that it was rolling out an online version of its Office software suite to counter Google Apps, software that enables users to edit and store documents and emails on remote servers accessible from anywhere.
Though Google websites, including YouTube, trump all others — drawing more than 1 billion visitors in May — people are spending more time on Facebook, according to research firm ComScore. The average U.S. visitor spent 375 minutes on Facebook in May compared with 231 minutes for Google.
So Google is trying to more tightly weave itself into Web users’ daily experience. It envisions Google+ as a foundation on which it can more seamlessly connect people to all of its products and services.
Google+ is similar to Facebook with streaming updates of photos, messages and other items shared with groups of friends that users designate. It also has group texting and video chat services, and Google executives said more features are planned. It’s currently available by invitation only and open to a limited number of users who are trying out the service.
On the Web, where so many services compete for time and attention, Google is trying to exploit a perceived weakness of Facebook: privacy. Google said that with its service users can “share just the right things with just the right people.”
Google said it learned a lesson about privacy last year when it launched Buzz, one in a string of social networking flops. The social networking service for Gmail users automatically included their email contacts in the network, setting off a firestorm of criticism. It led to a settlement in March with the Federal Trade Commission that included Google’s agreeing to submit to 20 years of independent audits.
Google said it learned from people’s desire to control the information they share in building Google+.
“There are a lot of the tools that people use today to connect with each other. We think those tools have deficiencies,” said Vic Gundotra, Google’s senior vice president of social. “Real world sharing is nuanced. Sometimes you just want to talk to a circle of friends, not the entire world or huge groups of people who are your ‘friends.’ We think there is room for innovation there.”
He sidestepped the question of whether Google is building a Facebook competitor. “We suspect people will use multiple services as they do today,” Gundotra said.
Managing what users share and with whom has become an Achilles’ heel for Facebook, said Charlene Li, founder of research firm Altimeter Group.
“Friend management is a huge issue on Facebook. You don’t want to treat all your friends the same,” Li said. “Google is starting from a position of strength because, especially for Gmail users, it already knows who belongs to your natural social network based on who you message all the time.”
But in Facebook, Google is going up against the world’s most popular social networking service, which has more than 600 million users.
“We are encouraged by Google’s continuing focus on the key social segment, but wonder about attracting users and activity,” Standard & Poor’s analyst Scott Kessler said.