When Google released its Google Buzz social sharing service on 9 February, it became natural to speculate whether Buzz would threaten Facebook in the social networking arena.
It won’t because, simply, users have become quite comfortable with Facebook and some of the 400 million users have generated a lot of content there in the last six years. That’s content that stays there.
Google Buzz lets users post status updates and share Picasa photos, YouTube videos, links and other content right in Gmail. Originally designed to automatically push updates to Gmail users from fellow users with whom they exchange email and engage in chat sessions, the service and its parent became entangled in nasty privacy snafus.
Google added a tickbox on 11 February to warn users that Buzz will show the names of Gmail contacts they follow and people following them on their Google profile. Google also made a number of other privacy controls more visible. After further complaints, Google made Buzz auto-suggest, letting users opt in to who they want to follow.
Google Buzz product manager Todd Jackson has publicly apologised for the stress Buzz has caused has been telling press that Google should have tested it out with the families of Google’s 20,000 employees.
While it may be tempting to label Buzz a failure and compare it to Facebook’s Beacon, which also exposed users’ social activities to friends in a major privacy snafu, the fact is that Google is leveraging its large user base of 176 million users.
Thanks to the original auto-follow roll-out, Buzz gained tens of millions of users the moment Google turned it on for a portion of users last Tuesday.
Buzz isn’t a failure, and Google is saying and doing the right things to resolve its privacy and public relations headache. Buzz will be a success, in so far as a company can succeed turning email, which Altimeter Group analyst Jeremiah Owyang calls a “historical social graph,” inside out as a social experience.
Buzz will hit a ceiling and that ceiling is the number of Gmail users, the majority of which are probably also Facebook users. It’s hard to see Facebook users fleeing the leading social network for the new, less fully featured experience of Buzz. Sure, you can share links, photos and videos and post status updates in Buzz, just as a user might do in Facebook.
Now, we mustn’t forget that Google pledged to bring Buzz to Google Wave and possibly Google Voice, so there is the potential to reach a few more million users (Voice has between 1 and two million users, while Wave has over 1 million).
But Facebook has more than double the users of Gmail, Wave, Voice and other Google Apps combined. Facebook users have become comfortable with the service, with an average user spending 20 minutes or more per day behind the walled garden of social delights.
Facebook is not afraid of Buzz. The company acknowledged the difficulty in Buzz’s goal of socialising an email inbox, which offers a balance between personal and professional relationships, in a public statement to me:
“The continued growth of the social web will be determined by people and personal relationships. The people that you email and chat with the most may not be your closest friends or the people that you want to share and connect with. We’re supportive of technologies that help make the web more social and the world more open, and we’re interested to see how Google Buzz progresses over time.”
In other words, Facebook doesn’t believe Google “gets” the social web. No threat there.
How can a newfangled service lure customers or users, as it were, away from their comfort zones?
It’s tough. Buzz will gain some users who despise Facebook; it’s already got cheerleaders such as Jason Calacanis stumping for the service. But it also has privacy experts who revile the service.
Google’s challenge with Buzz is similar to that of the stacked deck Microsoft Bing and Yahoo face every waking day in search. Just ask Bing, which has taken 8 months to gain 3 percentage points of market share and now sits at 11.3 percent.
That’s actually a lot of search share in so short a time, but even if Bing gains 5 percent share per year, it would still take more than a decade to catch Google, which is at 65 percent. No one believes that is going to happen. Well, maybe Microsoft does. It’s okay to possess delusions of grandeur.
So it goes with Buzz. If Google thinks Buzz is going to trigger a mass exodus from Facebook, where users are most comfortable, it also suffers from delusions of grandeur.
That’s okay. It’s all in the spirit of healthy competition as Google and Facebook fight for one of the greenest online frontiers after mobile: the social ad space.
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