Google+’s Circle Logic

Will Google+'s easy way to organize one's life in "circles" allow the search giant to catch archrival Facebook?

In the beginning, there was Friendster, which captivated the early Web’ites before it was smitten by slow servers and exiled to the Far East. And then a man called Hoffman begat LinkedIn, saying, “This name shall comfort professionals who want to post their résumés online,” and Wall Street did idolize it. And then Myspace lived for two thousand and five hundred days and worshiped flashy ads and was subsumed by News Corp., which the LORD hath cursed. And Facebook emerged from the land of Harvard and forsook the flashy ads for smaller ones and welcomed vast multitudes of the peoples of the world. And it was good.

Now there’s a new figure in the genesis of online social networking, Google+. Sprung from the loins of the mighty search giant, Google+ is something unusual for Chief Executive Officer Larry Page and his minions: a social network off to a promising start. The service includes a way for Web users to share with limited groups of friends, without requiring that they blast their updates to awkwardly large swaths of distant acquaintances or the entire Web. In the process, Google+ has won the devotion of some of Silicon Valley’s earliest adopters and toughest critics, and may finally allow Google to humanize its utilitarian suite of products and confront its archrival, Facebook. “This could scarcely have gone better,” says Bradley Horowitz, a vice-president of products at Google and one of the key architects of the new site. “These are the first steps of a race we intend to be in for many years.”

Since the company started distributing invitations to Google+ on June 28, 10 million users have signed up and visited at least once. There has been no immediate backlash from users or privacy activists, a minor triumph in its own right, given past controversies over flops like Google Buzz. Even a few celebrities have shown up to the party. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban posted to Google+ 67 times over a two-week period in July, vs. 29 posts on Twitter and 14 on Facebook. Michael Dell, CEO of Dell, held 22 video chat sessions with users over the last two weeks, using a videoconferencing feature called Hangouts that lets members chat face to face with up to 10 people at a time. Even Mark Zuckerberg himself, along with some 60 other Facebook employees, has opened an account.

The mojo is so good that Page took a quick bow on his quarterly earnings conference call with analysts on July 14. “Google+ is also a great example of another focus of mine: beautiful products that are simple and intuitive to use,” he said.

Google was basically forced to reenter the social pool with a strong service: Social networks, which have stumped Google for much of the past decade, are becoming the gravitational centers of the digital universe. Internet users spend more time now on Facebook than they do on Google, according to ComScore, and Facebook controls a commanding 17.7 percent of the growing market for display ads, vs. 13 percent for Yahoo! and 9.3 percent for Google, according to EMarketer.

Whether Google+ keeps the momentum is another matter. Many analysts do not share the exuberance of Google’s execs and the service’s early evangelists. “What they did is copy the best of Facebook and make it very simple to use,” says Jeremiah Owyang, a social media analyst at the Altimeter Group. “Google stopped trying to be innovative and is just doing what works.” Lou Kerner, a social media analyst at Wedbush Securities, questions whether Google can truly displace Facebook among mainstream Internet users, who were trained by Zuckerberg to use their real names online, post on each other’s walls, and tend to their virtual farms. “Traction in the Valley does not translate into traction with the rest of the world,” Kerner says.

New members start on Google+ by setting up yet another Internet profile page and then must connect to the people they know. The service helpfully draws friend suggestions from other services you use, such as Gmail. Each time users log in they see a scrolling stream of status updates, news links, and photos posted by friends. It all seems very familiar.

Google execs don’t claim to have invented the light bulb. Horowitz says the company studied other social websites and tried to combine their models into a single service that more closely resembles how people actually meet, socialize, and share in real life. At the center of that approach is a slick tool called Circles, a way to categorize friends, contacts, or people whose updates you just want to follow, by dragging their names into graphical wheels with labels like “friends,” “family,” and “acquaintances.” (The wheel rotates and triggers a little animation when you add a contact to a circle, a satisfying gimmick concocted by former Apple engineer Andy Hertzfeld.) Members can then decide which group they want to share with: Vacation photos can go only to family, while theories on the latest episode of Breaking Bad can be blasted to everyone. Google+, says Horowitz, “is as good for a whisper as it is for a shout.”

Google contends that it’s giving users the privacy that Facebook has denied them. Facebook has done many things right, obviously, but it also has repeatedly antagonized members with changes to its terms of service. The oft-heard critique is that it subtly pushes people to share their most personal updates with every former classmate whose friend request they impulsively accepted back in 2007. (There’s a less obvious way to categorize contacts on Facebook into something called Friend Lists.) Twitter, for its part, requires that users share updates with everyone who has chosen to follow them, a construct that can inhibit those who do not crave an online bully pulpit.

On Google+, the process of categorizing and filtering friends is baked into everything a member does on the service. Signing up is a little like mapping all the cliques in your life—and then deciding whose table you want to join that day for lunch. Every time you post, you can decide who can see it; every time you view your news feed on the service, you can choose which circle’s posts you want to read.

Horowitz and his close partner and boss, Senior Vice-President Vic Gundotra, say that three weeks of limited trials have confirmed their basic premise: that Internet users want a more refined way to share online. Speaking from their offices in Mountain View, Calif., they can barely contain their glee as they reveal a previously undisclosed stat: Members of Google+ are two to three times more likely to share an update with a specific circle, rather than publicly. It’s a subtle point, but it may prove profound.

“The circles model not only makes sharing more appropriate and more like real life, it solves a privacy issue,” says Gundotra, who joined from Microsoft in 2006 and led Google’s booming mobile business. “People had a desire to connect on other services, but privacy always was a stumbling block. That’s a huge opportunity.”

For years, Google wandered the desert of social networking. It tried and failed to buy Friendster in 2003, according to various histories of the pioneering startup. The following year it devised its own service, Orkut, which found its largest following in Brazil. Subsequent efforts over the next few years tended to vacillate between two incongruent goals: build a standalone social network to combat MySpace and Facebook or spread social features into existing services such as Gmail and the Google search engine.

In 2007, Google appeared to be assembling some key pieces for yet another run at the social networking crown. It acquired Jaiku, a Twitter-like micro-blogging site, and already owned Dodgeball, a service created by the founders of Foursquare that allowed people to share their location with family and friends. Then the recession washed over Silicon Valley, and Google’s leaders decided, as Larry Page likes to say, “to put more wood behind fewer arrows.”

Google’s budding social services were split apart and sprinkled over its major franchises. A feature called Profiles, which allows users to set up pages with their real identity, photo, and interests, was introduced in early 2009 as part of Google search. Around the same time, the idea behind Dodgeball evolved into a service called Latitude and debuted as part of Google Maps. Buzz was introduced in 2010 as part of Gmail and was a disaster heard ’round the world. Users revolted over a poorly conceived feature that exposed their Gmail contacts to the public. The Federal Trade Commission investigated, and big-brained Googlers got widely dinged for cluelessness.

Earlier this year, Google settled with the FTC by agreeing in part to undergo regular privacy audits for the next 20 years. Gundotra and Horowitz both played roles in overseeing Buzz. Google “is a company that embraces the process of learning,” says Horowitz, who joined in 2008 from Yahoo, where he tried (and largely failed) to bring that company into the age of social networking. “We have permission to try bold things that sometimes don’t work.”

Gundotra says Google was simply not yet serious about social networking back when Buzz launched. Then the pendulum swung back toward the idea of creating a single social network. Google streamlined all its social efforts into one project, dubbed Emerald Sea, and put Gundotra in charge. He reports directly to Larry Page. “Understanding the significance of getting this right dramatically ramped up only in the last year,” Gundotra says.

Is there really a spot for Google+ in people’s crowded digital lives? With Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, many people already feel over-networked. Then there’s the likelihood that Facebook will simply copy many of Google’s new features. “The obvious thing you can look for is for Facebook to radically restructure their privacy settings around groups,” says Josh Bernoff, an analyst at Forrester Research . A Facebook spokesman declined to offer an on-the-record comment about Google+.

Google does have some nice advantages. Hundreds of millions of people already have Google user names and passwords, and many of them tote around smartphones using its Android software. They are all prime candidates for Google+. Corporations already do big business with Google, gobbling up its search ads and jockeying for position in search results, and they undoubtedly will flock to the new service to exploit another way to reach customers. Google says it’s not yet ready for companies to join, but Ford Motor did so anyway earlier this month, and had to specify gender (Other). The first person to post on Ford’s page asked for a free car.

Google will have to tread carefully as it leverages its position to boost Google+. Antitrust authorities in the U.S. and Europe are already reviewing whether the company has a monopoly in the search business and unfairly steers users to its own sites at the expense of rivals. Will it push users of Android and the Chrome browser into Google+, or boost a company’s ranking in search results based on their Google+ profile? That’s the kind of “evil” behavior (by Microsoft in the 1990s) that Google’s founders were referring to with its famous motto. “We won’t do anything the user doesn’t agree to,” promises Gundotra. “I don’t think you are going to see us do anything unnatural.”

One reason Google+ is described as a field project, Gundotra says, is because the company is rapidly making changes based on user feedback, and many of its basic features are still unreleased. Without revealing a timetable, he hints that they will expand a feature called Sparks, which lets users specify their interests and adds fresh news stories and user discussions related to those topics into the site’s news feed. Google also plans to introduce programming tools that let other websites integrate aspects of the social network such as Hangouts, the videoconferencing tool, Gundotra says.

Those features are sure to wow geeks who already love Google+. But the company will also have to win over people such as Dinah Sanders, a productivity coach in San Francisco who tried Google+ for a few days and then quit. She says it was too tightly integrated into tools such as Gmail and was distracting her when she tried to work. “It’s like sitting at a wedding reception with your head down trying to focus on your work, and you’re hearing shouts of laughter and champagne corks,” she says.

Sanders does rave about one Google+ feature, though. Unlike Facebook, which some users have found difficult to permanently leave, she says she deleted her Google+ profile in less than five minutes. For a social network, that’s a pretty painless exodus.

— With assistance by Douglas MacMillan

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