How Google secretly won the war with Social Media by spectacularly failing one battle at a time

Posted by Owen Powis on 10 Oct, 2018
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Google has been in Social since the beginning and as it closes yet another Social Media project we take a look at what it has been trying to achieve and the story that connects the pieces together.

A Timeline of Google's War on Social

Google has in fact had four goes at Social Media, each of them fraught with its own issues and coming to an early demise. It appears to have had early success with Orkut, which ran for 10 years and a decade ago was one of the most visited sites in both Brazil and India. But Google never really managed to get a handle on Social. As Orkut failed and was outshone by Facebook and plagued by legal issues it seemed to create the blueprint for the projects that followed.

Google however didn't ever want to be a Social Media company, it just wanted the benefits. With the close of Google+ it might have lost that particular battle, but it most definitely has won the war.


Back in 2004 Social Media was really an open playing field. With MySpace dominating the space for only a year there was plenty of room for other players. It was in this environment that Google employee Orkut Büyükkökten, created Orkut as an independent project.

Although it’s barely remembered now in the US, back in 2004 that’s where half of its traffic came from. Orkut started out as a very open social platform, where anyone could see anyone’s profile and ‘scraps’ - notes sent between users - were visible to all. It also allowed users to rate each other, assigning friends a score out of three on ‘Trustworthy’, ‘Cool’ or ‘Sexy’, which was then aggregated as a percentage and shown on their profile.

Orkut however was also plagued by legal issues, beginning with those brought about by Affinity Engines, the owners of former project of Orkut Büyükkökten, InCircle. The claim was that Orkut had stolen code from the initial InCircle project, demonstrated by a number of shared bugs. The real problems, however, started with Facebook, and the shift in users from one to the other is widely believed to have been feature driven.

Orcut VS Facebook

Orkut over time

Orkut just didn’t offer anything that Facebook didn’t, plus Facebook was quicker to load and users just preferred its design. As Facebook adoption rocketed, Orkut's declined and by 2007 Facebook was the clear winner, except in a couple of key markets such as Brazil where Facebook saw much slower adoption.

Orkut VS Facebook : Brazil


It’s not until October 2011 that Facebook sees that same growth here, which then kills Orkut.

In the wider scheme of things Orkut was actually highly successful. It lasted 10 years, gained millions of users globally and is arguably Google’s most successful Social Media project. But towards the end of the product's lifecycle it began to see a number of security issues which also knocked user confidencet. The combination of a legacy of legal issues, a fast declining user base and a seemingly unstoppable competitor, Orkut just ran out of steam.

Google Friend Connect

By 2008 Orkut is still officially alive but it’s in trouble, Facebook has clearly surpassed it and in the US and most Western countries it’s in serious trouble. Facebook is also about to launch ‘Facebook Platform’ and this is in essence what Google Friend Connect was. A way for third party sites and developers to access the Social Graph.

The Social Graph is the map of connections of users to each other, services and interests. It’s more of a network than a graph with nodes (objects) sat in clusters (groups) based around those people and interests. It can be orientated or interrogated in many different ways. Showing the relationships between the different objects within it.

A Social Graph in action

By Festys - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Facebook Platform and Friend Connect were launched within days of each other, both offering a similar core service. A way for other sites and services to connect via an API to the Social Graph and other information held about their users.

The big disadvantage for Google here was always going to be the massive shortfall in user information it had to offer. Through Google Friend Connect you could create your profile and add this information. But it couldn’t hope to compete with Facebook through a single feature.

What it was actually doing was really, really clever:

"Social networking is going mainstream. It used to be proprietary, but now it's going to be open and baked into the infrastructure of the net, not just one site or one source"

Google's director of engineering David Glazer.

It was attempting destablise Facebook by attacking its core model; it was trying to ‘decentralise’ Social media by bringing social media features to every website.

Why would users continue going to visit Facebook (and at the time MySpace), which jealousy stored and guarded all their user data, when instead, through Friend Connect a user could could gain those same features on any website they visited?

"It's a smart move by Google which is trying to play the role of United Nations Secretary General by making sure everyone talks nicely to one another, getting the data to where they want to move it back and forward, and participate in open standards."

"Remember Google doesn't do anything without thinking about, not only how can this benefit the larger community, but how can it benefit Google."

Charlene Li, principal analyst at Forrester

There are even parallels here with Solid, the decentralisation project by Tim Berners-Lee. Putting aside that one of the core drivers for Solid is how companies like Google now act with your data, the core idea here was allowing users to gain more control over their data and grant sites access to it as they saw fit. Friend Connect was more forward thinking than we might give it credit for. It could also be argued it shows how far Google has moved from its old position when it was regarded as acting as the 'United Nations of the web' and we have to be reminded they are also acting in their own interest.

Whilst Google saw that Facebook had the user base, they did not have the web. At the time very few sites were socially enabled or connected, usage of the little social icons we see at the bottom of every page and post just wasn’t there. Google saw that as its way in. Give webmasters this great, free toolset to allow them to utilise Social on their own sites.

The most actual usage was seen in the Google Blogger community where it was how many Blogger sites were accessed, but with low adoption in the wider web and the dawning of Google+ it was the end for Friend Connect.

Google Buzz

In 2010 Google still had Orkut and Friend Connect running, however neither of them were performing well against Facebook. It’s from this environment at Google, with two struggling social media products already on their hands, that Buzz is developed and launched.

Buzz was initially a Gmail integration which allowed people to connect with friends and share a number of different media types in ‘conversations’. Or as it was seen at the time ‘Google gets twittery’.

So it wasn’t bringing anything new to the table, but rather, it was extending similar services already seen elsewhere to its own services. 

“There's a whole lot else that people do on Facebook besides comment on one another's status messages--the biggest of which is the company's groundbreaking third-party app platform. The biggest social game on Facebook, Zynga's FarmVille, attracts 75 million people per month. That's nearly a fifth of the social network playing a single game. Then there are the people who engage in other sorts of "games" on Facebook: the social capital that members feel they earn by getting tagged in a lot of photos and having a ton of wall posts from friends should not be sniffed at either, for example.”

So not only was the product lacklustre in terms of what it offered compared to competitors, Google also massively dropped the ball on the product launch, rolling live with some pretty massive issues which they later had to issue an apology for.

“The launch of Google Buzz fell short of our usual standards for transparency and user control—letting our users and Google down. While we worked quickly to make improvements, regulators—including the U.S. Federal Trade Commission—unsurprisingly wanted more detail about what went wrong and how we could prevent it from happening again.”

It wasn’t even 2 years before Google decided to kill Buzz - or at least have it superseded by Google+, depending on how you want to look at it. It wasn't a great time for Google as just two months earlier it had closed Wave so all those eggs were now in the Google+ basket.


So Google had now closed off a litany of previously failed projects, many of which were plagued by legal and data issues. Social continued to grow and Google had still failed to gain a foothold into that market. Enter Google+.

Google+ and its later added 'Local' feature

In June 2011 at launch Google+ created a huge amount of attention and was seen as a very serious competitor to Facebook. So serious that Facebook reputedly went into ‘lockdown mode’ and everyone was ordered to concentrate on matching and exceeding features from Google+.

“Google Plus was the great enemy’s sally into our own hemisphere, and it gripped Zuck like nothing else. He declared “Lockdown,” the first and only one during my time there. As was duly explained to the more recent employees, Lockdown was a state of war that dated to Facebook’s earliest days, when no one could leave the building while the company confronted some threat, either competitive or technical.”

Zuckerberg himself stated that Facebook was in a direct competition for users and that there was only room in the market for one of the platforms. Google+ was a shift from trying to take up parts of the market not already occupied by Facebook, to direct competition against it.

“The contest for users, he told us, would now be direct and zero-sum. Google had launched a competing product; whatever was gained by one side would be lost by the other.”

It really didn’t take long for it to become quickly apparent where the winner of this battle was. Less than a year later we were writing this:

“Few things have united the online marketing community more than Google+. Everyone hates it. Widely regarded as unnecessary, Google users spent about 3 minutes per month on the website, versus about 8 hours on Facebook In a socially-saturated world, Google+ just isn’t adding up”.

In reality it took less than 6 months for Google+ to turn from useful to an annoyance, with the only people using it being marketers pushing content. Although it's also the fault of Google for not making it an attractive enough proposition, SEO as an industry needs to take a good chunk of that blame.

Google+ and Search

2011 and 2012 saw two of the biggest algorithm updates Google has ever issued. The names are still familiar today and they made massive changes to the way sites were ranked. Google Panda and Google Penguin represented massives shifts in how content and links were treated.

Google was trying to address some of the problems that were happening within their search product and how links were being manipulated. Organic linking was in decline as now people shared content across social media instead. As Danny Sullivan (at the time of Search Engine Land and now Google’s own Search Liason) put it at SMX that year, links as a ranking factor are broken.

They represented an undemocratic view of the web, as the only people that could vote were web property owners. If you didn’t own a site you got no vote. Social Media was democratising the web, as all of a sudden anyone could link to a site. Google even mentions unlinked citations within their Panda patent application.

Google wanted in on that democratisation. Links are broken and Social was the fix. Within SEO there is a close watch across the industry on any Google product and of course as soon as Google+ was launched it was obvious that this was going to be a key part of SEO.

This meant that there was an unnaturally high amount of inorganic content. Written and placed by marketers and brands, not by people for their friends. Of course Google+ wasn’t just about fixing links. It was also very much about user data.

Much like Google Friend Connect Google+ aimed at created a Social Graph so they could better understand their user’s worlds. Whilst its failure has been widely derided Google has actually been busy succeeding in the background.

Closing Google+

Google doesn’t just not need Google+ anymore, Google doesn’t need Social anymore. It has found a better way of both fixing Search and generating the data for which it was previously relying on the Social Graph.

Google has realised it is better to look at mentions or unlinked citations from across the web, rather than favouring its own product. As of course that leads to that product getting swamped by people promoting content.

Here’s what Google Webmaster Trends Analyst, Gary Illyes, said at Brighton SEO in September 2017:

“If you publish high-quality content that is highly cited on the internet — and I’m not talking about just links, but also mentions on social networks and people talking about your branding, crap like that. Then you are doing great.”

If Google can now effectively use other social sources as ranking signals it doesn't need to bother with its own. Which leaves the other reason for having a Social Media product - the user data to generate more effective advertising products.

With the widespread adoption of mobile and Google’s absolute dominance in that market through Android, it has access to so much more user data. All the Google products provided through Android collecting that user data mean that the case for Google needing a Social Media platform to generate that Social Graph fast declines.

In fact it’s been a couple of years since anyone from Google’s top brass posted on Google+, so it’s clear internally they gave up on it at least a couple of years ago. That’s because there is something far, far bigger and more exciting going on which Facebook themselves are pouring money into: AI. It was only in May this year Google announced Google Research was being rebranded as Google AI.

Back in 2017 this is what Sergey Brin said about AI in his annual founders letter (emphasis mine):

The new spring in artificial intelligence is the most significant development in computing in my lifetime. When we started the company, neural networks were a forgotten footnote in computer science; a remnant of the AI winter of the 1980’s. Yet today, this broad brush of technology has found an astounding number of applications.”

Total mentions of Social Media, Google Plus, Social Graphs, etc etc..? None.

Google didn’t shut Google+ because it failed, Google simply outgrew its need for it. And unlike Facebook, Social Media isn’t Google's core product, which may well leave it in a far better position than Facebook in the long run…

Interest in Facebook over time

Interest in Facebook over time

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