Monday, November 29, 2010

Google signals its next social media move

The Voice of Google published announcements in recent months that functionality in Google Groups will be pared back radically come January. This is not important enough to make any newspaper's front page, but I do think it's a signal of the company's impending moves in social media space -- of the next battle in the search giant's war with Facebook.

Warning: this post starts with a shaggy dog story, but I've marked it off with a sub-heading so you can skip down to the rumor and speculation bits if you'd rather...

Shaggy Dog Story: functionality stripped from Google Groups

My on-line writer's coven uses Google Groups as a platform for discussion, critique, and other sorts of feedback on the work-in-progress of its members. Google's offering meets our needs pretty well. It allows us to restrict content-access to our group's members, upload files (usually the pages offered up for critique), and link out to other useful Google apps, like Calendar (where we maintain our schedule) and Docs (where we evolve and publish the group's guidelines).

So I was kind of irritated when Google threw an announcement over the transom in late September notifying us that file upload would no longer be supported. My irritation didn't last long, because there was a workable, if somewhat awkward fix: we created a Google Site, and -- in advance of the scheduled January shutoff of Google Groups' support for files -- began to upload to the new Site instead. (We're not uploading to Google Docs because these are not, for the most part, files that we edit collaboratively: they're pages-in-progress that writers share with other group members.)

The "Welcome Message" feature that permits linking to our posting schedule on Google Calendar easily accommodates another link from Google Groups to the new file upload URL. Groups remains the core of our on-line activity, from which we link to the ancillary stuff. Problem solved.

Only it isn't.

A few weeks after the first pare-back bulletin, Google announced that the Google Groups "Welcome Message" would go away too: "Google Groups will no longer be supporting the Welcome Message feature. Starting January 13, you won't be able to edit your welcome messages, but you will still be able to view and download the existing content."

The "Welcome Message" is a feature that allows a group to customize its Google Groups home page. We use it in a very thin, but essential way, as I mentioned above: to link to all the other Googlicious products and features we use, like Calendar, Sites, and Docs.

So Google Groups is losing the ability to upload files, create web pages, and even to have a "home" page? It's being stripped down to a bare-bones discussion forum, supporting only member management & mailing list / forum functionality? Okay, I thought. Such is the price of using services offered for free. If you get more than you pay for you can't say much about the nature of the gift. So, I figured, we can adjust to this change too. We'll just move the center of gravity of our group from Google Groups to Google Sites.

But wait! Turns out there's no supported gadget for integrating discussion forums from Google Groups into a Google Site. Not good.

Why hasn't Google provided integration, I wondered? Looking at the Google Sites forums it was clear that a number of people had asked for it, and had even fashioned some clumsy work-arounds. I had a sneaking suspicion what was up, but I thought I'd ask ... and complain a bit ... by starting a new thread in the Google Sites user forum. In Groups discussion widget for Sites integration I asked for real, supported, unclumsy integration -- which, despite the workarounds and unsupported gadgets other Sites users have suggested or provided, remains an ugly hole in Google appscape.

The thread drew some posts from other complainants, but, to-date, no response from the Google-plex itself.

Birth pangs of Google's latest foray into social-media?

I suspect that stripping functionality from Google Groups is part of a repositioning of Google's offerings. That repositioning, I'd say, is part of the search giant's next steps in the ongoing battle against Facebook for dominance of eyeballs-on-the-intertubes.

In late June of this year, rumors began to appear of a new offering from the biggest search engine on Earth. "Google Me" was the rumored offering's name (which many found pretty silly-sounding, as I do). It sounded like it was shaping up to be a Facebook rival to many technology-watchers. In Fall the rumor mill perked up again as hints were dropped that that "Google Me" might make its debut this Fall.

The nature of this new offering began to emerge from the fog a couple months ago, as PC World reported, when CEO Eric Schmidt announced in mid-September that: "Google will be adding 'a social layer' into its suite of search, video and mapping products."

A couple days later, the same PC World journalist, Brennon Slattery, cited unnamed sources who described that layered approach to Google's social media strategy -- something quite different from a one-stop social media destination like Facebook: "Google Me will produce an activity stream generated by all Google products. Google Buzz has been rewritten to be the host of it all. And the reason Google Buzz isn't currently working in Google Apps is because they'll use the latest Buzz to support the activity stream in Apps... All Google products have been refactored to be part of the activity stream, including Google Docs, etc. They'll build their social graph around the stream."

These hints became more solid earlier this month when, as the U.K.'s Telegraph reported, Hugo Barra -- Google's director of mobile product management -- said: "We are not working on building a traditional social network platform. We do think 'social' is a key ingredient ... but we think of it more broadly. We think of social as an ingredient rather than a vertical platform."

And hence: an explanation for what's happening to Google Groups this fall. Stripping away functionality is, I'd wager, part of what Slattery's unnamed sources described as a refactoring of "all Google products" to fit, as an "ingredient" into the ill-named "Google Me."

If Google Groups delivers only discussion forum functionality, it is likely to fit more seamlessly into Google's new modes for digital interaction -- as part of a larger constellation of engagement between Google users.

I'm guessing that Groups' stripped down functionality isn't well-supported in Google Sites for a reason. Google's plan, I think, is to steer users of current Google offerings (like my writing group) into "activity streams" that are part of its new social-media strategy ... not into that flat old static web page thing that Sites enables.

Will it work out for the better as far as my writing group is concerned?

Time will tell. It's clear that Google wants to do better than Orkut in the social-media space that Facebook currently dominates. How that will fall out for mere mortals is anybody's guess.


  1. I would love a sort of 'Google Me' and look forward to any sort of connectivity for Google Sites. I use Google Sites all the time and I blog about making a business out of it. A Google social tool would only bolster this effort. Thanks for the article.

  2. I'm pretty satisfied with the solutions that have been rolled out since I blogged on this topic.

    Thanks to Jiten Bhardwaj for being first in the thread I started in the Google Sites forum to point out a new embeddable Groups widget that Google rolled out for Google Sites. For info on how to use it, check out the new Groups UI help article on the topic

    The new UI for Google Groups includes elements that support the hypothesis I floated in this post re: changes to Groups pointing to bringing this offering into alignment with Google's social-media strategies. One such element is "lightweight comments" which allows tweet-sized comments that can be added to any 'regular weight' post to a Discussion Forum; this feature only works for groups that conduct all business in the Groups interface (e.g., that have e-mail delivery disabled).

    The new UI is explained in a set of Help articles for those who want more info.

    It's worth noting that in the Getting Started screen for the new UI, we're warned that "The new Google Groups user interface represents the first in a series of updates to Google Groups..."

    All is flux, as Heraclitus pointed out long before Google came on the scene. Stay tuned.