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Google searching for Facebook-like data from Plus

NEW YORK — Google didn't build its new Plus service simply to have an online hangout like Facebook.

Rather, Google's new social-networking endeavor is about trying to gain valuable insights into people's lives and relationships. This could help the company do a better job of targeting ads so that advertisers would pay more and have less reason to spend their money on Facebook.

If it succeeds, Plus represents Google's best shot yet at muscling into a market that has threatened to topple the Internet search and advertising leader, as Facebook leads the way in making the online world social.

On the surface, Plus is reminiscent of Facebook — with a Google touch. It lets people share photos and status messages, chat with friends and acquaintances, and follow news updates. A prominent feature called circles allows users to organize the people they interact with into groups, such as family, close friends or fishing buddies. Users can choose to share things only among certain circles.

Google Plus is still in a restricted test phase, and invites to join are highly coveted. Only time will tell if it takes off among the broader public or if it's too little, too late to face off with Facebook and Twitter on the social front.

Google has bungled past social media efforts. A sharing program called Wave was quickly killed off because users didn't know what to make of it. Buzz, a later venture, was the center of a privacy fiasco.

Google's chairman and former chief executive, Eric Schmidt, has acknowledged that the company failed to respond to Facebook's threat fast enough. His successor, Google co-founder Larry Page, has made social networking one of his top priorities since he took over in April.

"We don't think it's a coincidence that (Google Plus) was introduced less than three months after Page returned to the CEO post," said Standard & Poor's equity analyst Scott Kessler in a note to clients.

Facebook's greatest advantage is the immense trove of information that its users have shared about themselves through about 4 billion posts and connections they make collectively every day. Facebook knows what people are reading, eating and watching. It knows who's friends with whom, and which friends people trust for recommendations on what shoes to buy and which plumbers to hire.

"That's Facebook's biggest calling card to marketers," said Debra Aho Williamson, principal analyst with eMarketer.

Google can't index most of this information on its search engine because Facebook doesn't share it. Instead, Facebook has formed a search partnership with Google rival Microsoft. In May, Microsoft's Bing search engine started to use information from people's Facebook preferences to tweak its search results. This means Facebook users who search for shoes or concert tickets on Bing might get results that are tailored to the interests they listed on the site. For people who aren't logged on to Facebook when they search, Microsoft's search engine might still emphasize links that other Facebook users have recommended.

That puts Google at a disadvantage. Unless it can get similar data through a social service of its own, Google is left with a formula that sorts through the pattern of Web links and other computer data to determine where a site should rank in its recommendation. The system has become increasingly vulnerable to manipulation by Web sites looking to rank higher than their rivals. As a result, Google search results might not be as useful as recommendations drawn from an analysis of what they have already signaled that they like by pressing a Facebook button.

Danny Sullivan, who follows Google closely as editor-in-chief of the blog Search Engine Land, said that if Google Plus succeeds, Google would get "a good insurance policy" amid the rise of social networks.

That said, Google Plus doesn't necessarily need to be a Facebook clone.

"Google needs to have a social strategy that is relevant to Google and the way people use Google applications," said Susan Etlinger, analyst at Altimeter Group. "That's very different from how people use Facebook."

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