NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — Google on Tuesday unveiled Google+, yet another attempt by the search giant to overcome its past miscues in the social networking space.
More people visit Google’s network of websites than Facebook each month, but Facebook is killing the search company in categories that advertisers care most about: Time spent and pages viewed. Users spent 62% more time on Facebook than on Google last month, and viewed more than twice the number of pages on Facebook as they did on Google, according to comScore.
Google’s (Fortune 500) latest solution to this growing trend is Google+, a new social network that tries to out-Facebook Facebook. On Facebook, people are either “friends” or not. Google+ makes that distinction more fluid, letting users group their contacts into smaller categories, such as relatives, co-workers, or members of a yoga class. Information can be shared selectively with each group.,
“The subtlety and substance of real-world interactions are lost in the rigidness of our online tools,” said Vic Gundotra, Google’s senior vice president of social, in a blog post. “In this basic, human way, online sharing is awkward. Even broken. And we aim to fix it.”
Google+ features several components that attempt to mimic natural human interaction. For instance, to simulate sitting out on your front porch, one feature allows users to declare that they’re “hanging out” and interested in video chatting if a select group of people are around. Another lets users chat with a particular set of people — say, before they all meet at a concert.
Google often denies that Facebook is the company’s primary competitor, and Gundotra said Google+ was “not a reaction to Facebook.” Yet sources with knowledge of the project say that Google+ was known internally as “Googbook.” Google devoted 300 people to the team.
Unlike Google’s previous social attempts, such Orkut and Buzz — which had big, bold launches and are largely considered failures — Google is moving slowly and cautiously with Google+. It has only been launched for a small group of users, and others need to be invited to the service to use it.
Google also doesn’t consider Google+ to be a separate product, exactly. Rather, the company says it is an extension of things you can already do on Google. A toolbar will be available atop all Google sites, and users can download an Android or Chrome application to get notifications and share content.
For instance, a user could be in Google Maps, and share directions with a group. Search results, documents, even advertisements could be shared using Google+.
Google’s social puzzle pieces
At the same time, the company is also trying to be extra careful about ensuring users’ privacy, which ultimately killed any chance Buzz had of succeeding. Buzz was built on top of Gmail, Google’s e-mail client, and a confusing one-two punch in Buzz’s default settings automatically followed Gmail users’ most e-mailed contacts. Initially, those contacts were revealed publicly after a user “buzzed” about something.
Google’s first attempt at a social network, Orkut, has also been plagued by privacy concerns, especially when it was hit with a virus in 2010 that collected users’ personal information.
With Google+, content is only shared with a specific, intended audience — it is not shared publicly like content is on Twitter. Continuing the theme of mimicking face-to-face conversations, Google executives compare Google+ interactions to lowering a person’s voice to keep something between friends, telling a joke at a party or sharing an idea at a meeting. Each has a different expectation of privacy, which is understood in context by the people involved in the conversation.
After Buzz and Orkut never took off in the way the company had hoped, former CEO Eric Schmidt announced that Google would no longer consider launching a full-on Facebook competitor. Instead, he said, Google would incorporate “social elements” in all of its products.
Then-President Larry Page disagreed with Schmidt. After Page took over as CEO in April, the company began to focus more intently on doing battle with Facebook, including reportedly linking employees’ bonuses to Google’s success in social networking.
At the All Things D conference last month, Schmidt said Google’s social failings were his fault.
“I clearly knew that I had to do something, and I failed to do it,” he said. “A CEO should take responsibility. I screwed up.”