Mario Sundar

LinkedIn's 2nd PR hire. These are my thoughts on products, public relations, and startups.

Why Google Circles is a Giant Fail

Google+ (Google’s new social offering) seeks to differentiate itself from Facebook with three key features: Google Circles (their tentpole feature, seemingly a retelling of Facebook privacy lists), Google Sparks (seriously useless) and Google Hangouts (which was my first positive reaction to the features Google+ launched with.

Let’s focus on Google Circles for a second, since I read a couple of posts today: one, by Kevin Cheng – product guy at Twitter, who shares my thoughts on why friend lists don’t work and another from Fred Wilson on the potential evolution of social suggestions by Google, and therein lies the rub…

So, let’s start with my Google Circles thoughts (originally published on Quora)

“A friend list by any other name…”

Call it Google+ Circles, but it’s still just a far easier-to-setup-and-use friend list. Facebook allows you to create different friend lists today and even prompts you to bucket your friends when you connect — but how many users use that.

Unfortunately, this ain’t a sustainable solution.

Here’s why: my friend lists are constantly evolving and are extremely nuanced and (no way) am I gonna continually update these lists over time. For e.g. I’ve created a list for Colleagues. Guess what? Colleagues move and so do you (from job to job), and once somebody leaves that Circle — that privacy list is useless — cos you’re now gonna share something that they shouldn’t be seeing. So, you’ve a broken list…

Yes, Google Circles may be good spin but it’s futile. Kevin echoes similar thoughts:

Thus, maintaining digital groups has two problems. First, you don’t know when to move someone from one group to another because transitions happen gradually. Second, it’s simply a lot of effort to maintain. How often would you update the entire list? And if it’s not updated, how useful are the groupings, really?

He then takes it one step further by wondering out loud if it’d be possible to automate these groups? Here’s Fred Wilson elaborating on this topic:

This is an oppportunity to use machines. And Google is doing this with Google+. The recommendations on who to add to what circles are amazing. So why make me do the drag and drop thing other than it is fun and cool to do that on a computer?

If Google+ knows who my music friends are then just suggest “music friends” when I hit the share button and send it on. Do I care if it goes to a few people who aren’t actually my music friends? No I do not. Do I care if a few of my music friends don’t get it? Yes, but then I can add them explicitly. I trust Google to do a fine job of this for me. They’ve proven themselves worthy of the job so many times in my relationship with them over the years. I trust that they can build algorithms like this as well or better than any other company out there.

Google doesn’t get social, yet.

I beg to differ. In my personal experience, I haven’t seen Google’s expertise at crafting good social recommendations, yet. And, here’s my take. As I’ve said from the get-go, Google+ seems less like an innovative shift or evolution in the social networking construct and I’m still not convinced that they get social or community.

As I’ve argued earlier, sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, Quora, Tumblr get social and are building their communities from the scratch. Google seems to be applying a sliver of social across all their existing products and I posit that they hope to create an identity ecosystem that ties it all together. Here’s an interesting theory from Vincent Wong that positions Google (and Google+, right) against Microsoft and less as a social play against Facebook.

Google’s Implicit Graph

But, I digress. Speaking of social recommendations: what does Google know today? Who do you email, from whom do you receive spam, whose emails do you ignore and what do you search for. A huge win for them in the past. But, an email graph plus search doesn’t a social graph make. That’s why I’ve wondered what sense it made to integrate Google+ Like buttons onto search.  Granted, Google+ is their first sorta serious attempt at social (Buzz, Wave, RIP), but frankly I haven’t had one pure social interaction with friends or family on Google+ yet. I’ve over 3000 followers (reminds me of Friendfeed and Twitter) but it’s definitely not the social graph we’re seeing here. It’s random comments from marketers, bloggers and Googlers seeking focus groups on Hangouts. I kid you not.

You know who could create the implicit social graph: Facebook can.

From day one, they’ve created a truly social universe for three quarters of a billion people and they probably possess a slew of real social gestures (whose walls do you visit, whose photos do you tag, whose tags of your photo do you untag, whose photos do you comment in, what group messages are you being sent today, whose parties are you invited to, which of those parties do you actually go to, I could go on… and then there’s the mobile side of it, places, etc.)

Now, I’m sure my experience may not be your Google+ experience (if yours is different please leave a comment or @mariosundar me). But, to summarize, I believe Facebook has a real good shot at creating the implicit groupings that Fred and Kevin talk about and I look forward to that.

And, btw, you know who can suggest music friends. Wait till Spotify and Facebook unleash their plans for world domination and then musical social recommendations won’t be too far fetched.

Disagree? Sure. Leave a comment or let’s chat on Twitter.

p.s. All said and done, I wouldn’t write off Google. They are definitely in this for the long haul, are taking a ton of feedback from users and who knows what their next play will be. Rest assured, you’ll hear about it here.

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