Google Buzz takes the fight to Facebook

Google's moves to take its own large bite of the burgeoning social networking pie

When the world's largest Internet company decides to spend some of its massive development budget on social networking tools, the likes of Facebook and Twitter had better take a long glance over their shoulders, industry analysts noted.

Google Inc. today took a powerful swing at such social networking sites by unveiling upgrades to the Gmail e-mail service that make it more of a social networking hub.

The Google Buzz tools, which began a weeklong rollout this afternoon, aim to help users better find the most important information contained in their flood of social posts, pictures and video.

"We're giving you tools and techniques that will let you manage your time better," said Bradley Horowitz, Google's vice president of product management. "Increasingly, it's hard to find value and not let it all just wash over you. We feel this bombardment, this fatigue of dealing with the rush of information."

Google Buzz is a new tab in Gmail that enables users to connect with one another and pull in information from sites like Twitter, YouTube, Picasa and Flickr. Social updates and posts will appear in users' Gmail in-boxes.

Buzz also is geared to make recommendations of posts from people a user might not follow but would likely find interesting.

Company executives today also unveiled a mobile version of Buzz and disclosed that an enterprise version is in the works.

Analysts said it all comes down to appetite.

Google, the most powerful company on the Internet, wants its share of the social networking pie. And it's one heck of a big pie. Facebook alone has about 400 million users, while Twitter has more than 45 million.

That, according to Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group Inc., is a lot of eyeballs that Google is now missing.

"Google obviously covets the millions and millions of Facebook and MySpace users and wants to monetize them," added Olds. "This represents a new market for Google, which up to now has had tools that users would use for particular tasks rather than linger on for extended periods of time. This is a serious bid by Google to use its strengths in other areas -- think search, mobility and locality -- to support its own social networking hub."

Google's move could also deliver a quick blow to Facebook and Twitter, which have been riding high on the social networking stratosphere. Even though Google Buzz is just out of the starting gate, Google quickly can draw on the "tens of millions" of Gmail users, as well as its own online cache, to quickly build a Buzz following.

"This is Google, the 500-pound gorilla on the Internet, getting serious about social networking and leveraging its Gmail service to gain a big foothold. This is very important," said Rob Enderle, an analyst at the Enderle Group. "This is a control play, and it may reduce the number of choices people have over time. Like all large moves, this has the potential to be really good or truly evil. It's too early to say yet, but it puts a lot of power in Google's hands, and lots of power in the hands of one company typically doesn't end well, regardless of who the company is. "

While this can't be good news for MySpace, which has been slipping rapidly in the social networking rankings, it's also troublesome news for Facebook and Twitter. And it's interesting to note that while Buzz will include Twitter feeds, it won't do the same for Facebook items -- at least not at the start.

"I don't see that Google is offering a social networking killer app that would compel large numbers of users to adopt Buzz," said Olds. "I don't see this really hurting Facebook, at least not in the short to medium term. Users beget users. Creating a popular social networking site is a hard process to get started. While Google is offering some interesting features, I'm not sure that any of them rise to the I've-gotta-have-it level for the vast majority of users."

However, Olds also was quick to note that if any company is up to the task of building a social networking hub that could rival Facebook, it's Google.

"One of Google's great strengths is its ability to support initiatives like Buzz," he added. "Google is going to have to sweeten the pot with more revolutionary features in order to pull users away from Facebook and MySpace. And I'm sure they're working on that."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, send e-mail to sgaudin@computerworld.com or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed .

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