April 20, 2010

Google's Battle For Your ID Against Facebook Heating Up

With the news last week that Blogger product manager Rick Klau was transitioning to a similar role leading the Google Profiles team, I have been doing some thinking around how Google could improve the utility of its Profile property, and the more I think about it, I really believe the Profile could be a major front in the company's battle with Facebook and other networks to act as the central hub for your online persona. Today, Google Profiles seem to be something of an afterthought, although their integration with Google Search and now Buzz in the last two years have raised their prominence. But given Google's mountain of data being amassed on you and your preferences, and the opportunity to build a new feature set, I see significant opportunity for them to get the content right and the deployment right. Strike early enough with our suggestions, and we just might actually have an impact on what they do as well...

At the end of 2007, in one of my more speculative posts, I asked, Will There be One Profile to Rule Them All?, highlighting three of the most prominent Web profile services at the time: Google, MyBlogLog and FriendFeed. Nearly 30 months later, MyBlogLog is practically dust, squished by its Yahoo! overlords, FriendFeed was similarly absorbed into Facebook, though the site continues to run, and Google hasn't changed all that much, to be honest, featuring the same collection of third party links that hint at who I am online.

At the time, I asked of the three services, "which one knows me best?" In the last 30 months, those three services didn't do much to answer that question, offering a minimum of personalization, and letting the content from third party sites tell the story. In their place, Facebook became the dominant player in the space, transitioning from a student-only site to one inviting all Web users to input information about themselves, their likes, preferences and connections. Now, the answer is obvious - Facebook is the dominant profile online, with others possibly answering LinkedIn, and a smaller percentage pointing to Twitter, assuming your one-line description, profile picture and tweets encompass the true you.

But Facebook's goal, thus far, has not been so much to encapsulate the entire you, built from content created on other sites. While you can pull in blog posts and bookmarks and third party activity, the majority of action is created from within what people call the walled garden, and unless you have connections with the individual, the data is not fully open and available. Google's approach, to have all profiles viewable, open, indexable and discoverable, opens up new opportunities to make the Google Profile the Web's reference guide for you as an individual.

Today, Google Profiles have six distinct sections:
  1. About Me: Includes a short biography, which you write yourself, which can include links or e-mail addresses. It also has a summary section for "Where I grew up", "Places I've lived", "Companies I've worked for" and "Schools I've attended". Not too much detail on positions held there, or years served... just the basics.
  2. Buzz: If you are populating Buzz, the content will be shown in a tab on your profile.
  3. Contact Info: You can make your e-mail, phone, birthday, and address visible to contacts and friends, or keep it private.
  4. Sidewiki: If you make entries in Sidewiki, they can be displayed on your profile.
  5. Photos: You can display photos from Flickr, Picasa or other services below your avatar.
  6. External links to social services: The same logo farm provided in many places, where you can customize what external sites you use.
Also included are some small random elements including "Something I still can't find on Google", "My superpower" and "Interests".

All told, it's a pretty casual approach, but not one that would have me returning often.

That said, the ingredients appear to be in place for Profiles to expand beyond their current role and possibly take a more direct assault on Facebook, LinkedIn and other personal hubs. In this scenario, a public site, built from Buzz entries from those you follow, take the place of Facebook's current newsfeed, and your profile becomes your Facebook Wall. Facebook Photos are replaced by Picasa photos, and the many connections you've found in Facebook are similar friend connections through Google, only in an asynchronous mode, not a synchronous one, a public one, and not a private one.

Does this mean that the experience of Facebook could be directly duplicated through some brilliant massaging of Profiles and the extraction of Buzz from Gmail into a more public, dedicated site? Of course not. For one, the work on Groups, Networks, Causes, and the many apps that have people coming back to Facebook, if for nothing else than doing battle on Lexulous, takes some work to replicate. Also, it can be assumed that one's social graph will vary from network to network, so those friends from high school might be your links on Facebook, but your colleagues might be linked to you through Google.

Google, seemingly caught flat-footed in the world of social for the last few years as Facebook and Twitter ran circles around them, is trying to win this game through following the Web's trends - toward open standards, public content and discoverability. Even if they don't get people to stop using Facebook, they can deliver an alternative that is a distributable URL that you can share with people to say "This is me" on the Web. I may use my blog for that, but for many, one's Google Profile truly could be the real "Me". They have an opportunity to compete and take visibility and share from these services by eliminating the holes in their lineup, and then innovating to go beyond what others are providing today.

The question is - are people interested, and does Google want to win this thing?