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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Google Wants to Help Web Sites Make New Friends

Google offers to imbue all websites with social networking

Google has set out to enable all websites, free of charge, to be imbued with common social networking features as the Internet evolves toward becoming a giant community along the lines of MySpace or Facebook.

Google Friend Connect was previewed at a Campfire One gathering of third-party software developers at the company's "Googleplex" campus in Mountain View, California on Monday.

The unveiling of the plan comes just days after top social networking websites MySpace and Facebook broke down walls of their online communities to let members share profile information at other websites.

"Social is going mainstream," Google director of engineering David Glazer said during a conference call with reporters

Google brings Friend Connect to the masses

As expected, Google has unveiled a preview of Friend Connect, a way to add social features to a Web site without programming.

David Glazer, director of engineering at Google, described Friend Connect, whose site is inaccessible Monday morning, as plumbing for the rest of the Web.

"The Web is getting better by getting more social. We've baked social features into the infrastructure of the Web, and it is not tied to any particular site," Glazer said. "Users can interact with any of their friends anywhere they go on Web, and with any app."

I asked Glazer if Friend Connect is a response to Facebook Connect and's Data Availability. "People will speculate a lot in that direction. We didn't create this code in the three days (since Facebook and MySpace made their announcements)."

Unlike Facebook and MySpace, Google lacks a dominant, centralized social-networking hub. Friend Connect works the edges of the Internet, applying an open and distributed approach, and bringing a social dimension to the 99-plus percent of sites that aren't socially enabled.

David Glazer, director of engineering, Google

Glazer emphasized that Google is focused on keeping users in control of their information. "The Webmaster has no business knowing who my friends are, but I can choose to link my login to my Facebook account and invite friends," he said. "It's up to each site to publish APIs, with appropriate terms of use," Glazer told me. "I would expect as Friend Connect matures in the market, we will see more people connecting to it and more standard interfaces to turn on and register for it. It's not fully standard now.

Friend Connect covers many of the use cases for the social Web, but a single, standard "friend" API is still lacking.

"There are a few good candidates, such as the OpenSocial RESTful APIs, which are at a rough consensus stage but not running code," Glazer said. "We don't know enough to call a winner, but there will be a standard."

If you run a Web site, you may have a lot of new friends.

Last week, site owners learned they could add information about their users from MySpace and Facebook.

On Monday, Google introduced its take on the same phenomenon, Google Friend Connect.

Google puts two spins on this concept. First, its program is designed to allow very small Web sites to add some social networking features without sophisticated programming. All they have to do is copy a little code onto their Web pages.

Second, Google lets site owners link to a range of other sites, including, for various functions, AOL, Yahoo and Facebook.

"Google Friend Connect is like giving Webmasters a salt shaker full of 'social' that they can sprinkle on their sites to add social capabilities," David Glazer, a director of engineering at Google told a conference call of reporters Monday.

Like so much that Google does, the Friend Connect system is rather sketchy at this early stage, with a lot of key details yet to be determined. But it does seem to provide a few features that small Web sites may find appealing.

Friend Connect offers an easy way for sites to let users log in and identify themselves. Users can use their existing user names from AOL, Yahoo, Google and a list of other sites that use the emerging OpenID standard. If you don't log in to a Google Connect site with a user name from one of its partners, you will be prompted to create a new Google account.

As a second step, users can then link to one or more social networks they participate in, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Plaxo, Hi5 and Google's Orkut. They can also tap into the Google Talk instant message system, which isn't a full-blown social network.

These links will import the user's photograph, nickname and list of friends. (MySpace, a Google partner on a number of other initiatives, doesn't have the technical infrastructure to support Friends Connect, Mr. Glazer said.)

It's the friend list that makes things interesting. Say you go to a Web site on a specific topic (Google's demo is a site for guacamole lovers). Once you log in, you can see the names and photos of all of your friends who are members of that site. Hmm, you say, I never knew that Joey was a guac fanatic. Click, click, click. You might be able to see all of Joey's comments on the site, his guac reviews, and his killer poblano corn guacamole recipe. Maybe you will even be able to send him a message with a question about why you were never invited to that Cinco de Mayo party.

The way that Web site owners add all these nifty features is through another Google initiative called OpenSocial. Until now, OpenSocial has been a way to write applications for a handful of big sites including Orkut and MySpace. Now any Webmaster that uses Friend Connect will be able to add OpenSocial applications, written by Google and other companies.

What's not clear is exactly what features will be available and what information will be transferred from social networks to these other sites.

For example, right now Webmasters that participate will not have access to the e-mail addresses of the users who log into their sites through the Google system. That means they can't send messages to their own users about new features on their sites. In an interview, Mr. Glazer said Google hasn't gotten around to figuring out whether to do this, and if so, how to give users choices about where their e-mail addresses are sent.

Strategically, Google has a different objective than MySpace and Facebook. Those networks want to make their systems the central profiles that people use to define their identities on the Web. And their openness initiatives are meant to add more value to those profiles.

Google is not really competing to provide social network profiles, other than in the countries in which Orkut has become popular, such as Brazil. It has talked about adding more social features to Google Talk and Gmail, although it's hard to tell how serious an effort that is.

But one market Google is very serious about is small Web publishers. Its AdSense advertising network, which serves millions of sites, is one of the engines of Google's rapid growth. And it keeps adding other services that make Webmasters happy, including Google Analytics and the Feedburner system for managing RSS feeds.

It also may be useful for Google to offer a system that can integrate aspects of many different networks and portals. But this also introduces a level of complexity that may well be complicated for users.

Mr. Glazer said this complexity is inevitable at first.

"The early adopters are the ones who have the tolerance, and they help us as vendors get things smooth," he said. "Once things are smooth, it opens up beyond early adopters."

Google may be able to say that. But MySpace and Facebook need to make sure that whatever they do wins friends not only among Webmasters but also among tens of millions of users.

The distributed model has worked well for the Web. That is what the Web does--many points of light loosely coupled and massively distributed, allowing users to connect to pages of information," Glazer told me. "Now it is working to connect people to other people."

Friend Connect-compliant sites will be able to view, invite, and interact with newfound friends, or with existing friends, from established social-networking sites, including Facebook, Google Talk, Hi5, Orkut, and Plaxo via secure authorization application-programming interfaces.

Currently only a few sample sites, including Google's Guacamole site, are available to end users. "We are looking to get feedback from Web site owners about what kinds of sites and apps they want," Glazer said. Ingrid Michaelson, an independent musician, integrates iLike's OpenSocial application with Friend Connect to connect friends without having to leave the site.

John McCrea, vice president of marketing at Plaxo, said Google's Friend Connect is "flipping the model" from walled gardens (such as Facebook) to a more open social Web: Instead of widgetizing apps and bolting them on to some corporation's proprietary social graph, why not widgetize the social graph and socially enable any Web site or Web page?That's a big, bold vision that Plaxo is 100 percent aligned with. As to Facebook and MySpace, it is certainly great to read the rhetoric they are now putting forth. The meme of data portability, open social Web, and bill of rights for users of the social Web has certainly caught on! Alas, the devil is in the details, and we haven't seen any details (yet) from Facebook--just a Friday blog post signaling intent. It might be great, and we hope it is, but it's not clear what the actual substance will be. With regard to MySpace, the rhetoric is over-the-top goodness, including a declaration of the end of the era of walled gardens. Alas, the details, as they currently exist, for their "Data Availability" effort fall far short of the vision many of us share for users having ownership of their data, control over who can see it, and freedom to take it with them, wherever they go across the social Web.In the MySpace "Data Availability" model, the user can take their data for a walk anytime they want or to any place they want, but the data remains on a tether. There is no notion of copy, move, or sync. Participating sites must agree to have MySpace serve the data live in their page. That's a half-step wrapped in a beautiful flag of openness.

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