Google moving into Facebook territory with eye on social networking games

By Sonja Ryst
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 29, 2010

The tweet sent a quiver through the blogosphere: "Google to launch Facebook competitor very soon." That line from Kevin Rose, the tech entrepreneur who founded the content-sharing site Digg, unleashed a sense that the online world as we know it was about to fundamentally change.

The idea that Google, the world's dominant search company, would soon be taking on Facebook, the world's dominant social networking site, intrigued business analysts and bloggers alike. They set out to guess what the service, reportedly called "Google Me," would be like.

They predict Google's efforts could yield could a "Facebook killer." Google has confirmed so little about its strategy, it's unclear how or what results it might bring. But the speculation has been rampant.

What is Google after? Your time. Networking takes more of it than searching. And time is money, as they say.

Some wondered whether Google would integrate its existing social networking services, Orkut (a "friends" network popular in Brazil and India) and Buzz (a messaging tool integrated into Gmail). Analysts estimate that the two would have a combined membership of 400 million -- making it a decent-size competitor to Facebook's 500 million-plus-member service.

Some have argued that Google unleashed Buzz as its challenge to Facebook -- and failed. Others thought Google would build on Google Profiles, which can be made public and can rank well in search results for a person's name. Some wondered whether it would upgrade Latitude, which lets you share your location with friends, or Wave, the online collaboration tool. But Wave failed to pick up momentum, and Google killed it this month.

This week, Google announced its latest innovation: a Gmail feature that allows you to place a phone call through your computer. The service is free in the United States and Canada for at least the rest of the year and costs as little as 2 cents a minute to dial countries such as Germany and Japan.

But perhaps the most radical idea of the summer was this: Google is planning to jump into social gaming in a big way. Even though Google's given us a bright moment or two of time-sucking frivolity (think: its whirl with Pac-Man), Facebook is the most important platform for this kind of online game.

Google has taken steps to make its services more competitive on Facebook's turf. Google announced this month that it was buying Slide, a start-up that makes apps for social networking, for $228 million. And according to news reports, Google recently took a financial stake in Zynga, the company behind the popular game FarmVille.

"They're pretty much going after everyone," said Heath Terry, director of Internet research at FBR Capital Markets. "Anyone that has had success in gaming." He said it's a way for Google to make sure it has the content to compete in mobile, and also to get people to stay on its sites longer.

Google declined to comment on the matter.

Google engineering director David Glazer blogged about his company acquiring Slide, provider of the online community SuperPoke! Pets, in which users care for virtual pets, decorate their habitats and send gifts to friends. Glazer said his company is working to develop "open," "interesting" and "fun" ways to let people take advantage of technology, which can bring them closer to one another and provide information "just for them."

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