By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
To socialize these days, hundreds of millions of people every month visit networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook.
But what if the Web itself operated as a social network?
Google announced yesterday another step in what its engineers see as that inevitable evolution. A new, free service from the Mountain View, Calif., tech giant will allow any Web site to become a social site.
Any Web page, whether it is devoted to curling or pizza or a folk singer, could allow visitors to meet and connect with "friends" who visit that site. Like any such major network today, a Web page using the service could present users with the names and pictures of friends and potential friends. Those people could then post messages to one another.
The announcement from Google comes at a time of ferment and speculation over how people will meet and fraternize on the Web.
While large social networks such as Facebook and MySpace have grown rapidly and are judged to be worth billions of dollars, they have also drawn criticism for being "walled gardens" -- places that allow members to connect easily, but only while the members are at that site.
The new Google service, known as Friend Connect, raises the possibility that the kind of kibitzing that has been largely contained on a handful of mega-sites could spread across the Web.
"We're in the middle of a huge change," David Glazer, an engineering director working on Google's social initiative, said in an interview. "Wherever people go on the Web, they want to have their friends with them, and this makes it possible."
Some analysts described the service as a way for Google to gain a better foothold in an area of Web services that it has been slow to exploit.
"The fact that so many people were using Facebook made Google nervous," said Danny Sullivan, editor in chief of Searchengineland.com, an industry site. "They watched this site have explosive growth, and they don't have a competitive product. It's not that Google is thinking, 'Gosh, all these people need help.' They're thinking, 'We're behind on social networks.' "
Friend Connect is aimed at the millions of Web sites that could benefit from having members interact but can't enable such connections because of a lack of technical expertise or hardware.
With Friend Connect, the owner of a Web site would add a snippet of code to its page. Google's servers would handle the rest.
For example, one of the first Friend Connect customers will be independent musician Ingrid Michaelson, who like most entertainers has an official Web site.
Her fans can befriend one another if they visit her MySpace page. But by using the Friend Connect service, Michaelson will be able to allow fans to connect with their friends, or make friends among fellow fans, without having to leave the site. Visitors will be able to see which of their friends are posting comments or attending concerts.
Friend Connect is "about helping the 'long tail' of sites become more social," Glazer said. "Many sites aren't explicitly social and don't necessarily want to be social networks, but they still benefit from letting their visitors interact with each other."
Friend Connect will be available for now to a limited number of Web sites, maybe a dozen or so, company officials said. Within a few months, it is likely to become more broadly available.
While Google will receive no immediate financial reward, Glazer said the company benefits when "the Web is healthy." When more people use the Web, more people see the ads that Google runs.
Friend Connect also boosts Google's standing in the social networking field, analysts said, where because of its size the company has ample ability to catch up.
"Google has been a fast follower behind Facebook, but they're still Google," said Ray Valdes, research director of Web services for Gartner. "This will have an impact for sure."
Over the past year, even as tens of millions of people have signed up for social networks, the industry landscape has been in the throes of a rapid evolution.
Users have discovered the hassles of registering with multiple networks and having to "import" their friends list from one site to another.
Those problems have led some in the industry to support standards that allow for sharing of social information across Web sites. In a similar vein, MySpace and Facebook announced initiatives last week to make it easier for users to transport their information.
For the companies involved, the burgeoning social behavior on the Web is what's at stake.
Just as Google, through its search engine, is a gatekeeper for much of the Web's content, the company that succeeds in helping consumers socialize on the Web could reap similar benefits.
Still, there is a great deal of uncertainty over what will happen.
Some analysts have suggested that Facebook and MySpace might be fads. Others have speculated that their use could decline as more sites add "friend" features, or as the Web itself becomes a social place.
"The real question for a Facebook or a MySpace is: Is it best to think of them as a place like Studio 54 -- a place where everyone wants to get in because all their friends are in -- or is it more like some kind of utility?" asked John McCrea, vice president of marketing for Plaxo, a company that maintains relationship information for 20 million members. "This is the evolution of the walled garden to the social Web."