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An uphill battle against Facebook

Google is taking on Facebook. Above, Google’s Sergey Brin. Google is taking on Facebook. Above, Google’s Sergey Brin. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)
By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / February 25, 2010

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I’m not sure I need another social-networking service, but Google certainly does.

In 2004, the giant search company unveiled an early service called Orkut. You probably use it if you’re from Estonia. It’s quite a big hit there. Also, in Brazil and India. In the rest of the world, not so much.

Meanwhile, a bunch of Harvard undergrads developed Facebook, now used by 400 million people worldwide, probably including you.

You can hardly blame Google Inc. for taking a second swing at this huge market. Its newest offering, Google Buzz, is a respectable effort, but far from first class.

Google began with the insight that e-mail is the original Internet social-networking tool, connecting us to the people who matter most. So Google designed Buzz as an integral feature of its Web-based Gmail service, which has more than 175 million users worldwide. People with Gmail accounts can log in at the website, click a mouse, and instantly sign up for Buzz.

Yet Google took it a bit too far.

With Facebook, you get to choose your own friends. When it first was launched, Buzz did that for you, by linking you automatically to the people you e-mailed the most. All of those “followers’’ were given access to your Buzz postings and were able to read your Gmail profile. Many users store personal information like their addresses and children’s’ names in their profiles. To top it off, all your Buzz followers could see who else you were following.

Those obvious defects did not trouble Google until the company was besieged by outraged users; it seems many of us send lots of e-mail to people who have no business knowing this stuff. But unlike Facebook, which has tended to drag its feet when resolving privacy complaints, Google moved fast. Sign up for Buzz now, and the service only suggests followers from your e-mail address book; you decide whether to hook up. You are also given an easy way to conceal your list of buddies.

With its worst privacy problems corrected, Buzz is a decent new tool for keeping in touch, but not nearly good enough to wean me away from Facebook. Buzz lacks important features, like those little red signals at the top of the Facebook page that notify you someone has responded to a posting or sent a private message. Click the red signal and you’re taken directly to the good stuff. The Buzz notification system isn’t nearly so precise, leaving you to hunt through heaps of recently arrived data for the items that matter.

Where’s my “share’’ button? Facebook provides one that I’ve added to my browser’s toolbar. When I hit upon an interesting Web page, photo, or video, I can put the link on my Facebook page with a couple of mouse clicks. Buzz forces me through a lot of cutting and pasting.

I don’t use Twitter often, but I like how my Tweets appear instantly on my Facebook page. Buzz delays them for hours. A batch I sent on Tuesday afternoon finally turned up on Buzz at 3:30 Wednesday morning.

And then there’s the most important feature missing from Buzz: users. The service is less than a month old, and so far, few of my online cronies want any part of it. I’ve hooked up with a few dozen people, compared to hundreds of Facebook friends.

None of these defects are fatal. And Buzz has a few bright spots. It has an excellent photo viewer, integrated with Google’s own Picasa photo-sharing website, as well as Yahoo’s Flickr service. Post images from either site, and a selection will appear inside the Buzz page as large, sharp images rather than cramped little thumbnails.

And you should see how well Buzz works with Apple’s iPhone. Buzz uses the phone’s GPS system to identify your location and share it with other Buzzers, if you wish. Buzz from a favorite restaurant or retail store, or check out someone else’s buzz. Up pops a map, customer reviews, and other pages related to the location. Facebook has nothing like this.

Still, Google crushed once-mighty Internet search rivals like Alta Vista and Yahoo because its product was far superior. Its social-networking service is good enough to survive and maybe even to thrive, but not good enough to conquer. Put it this way: Buzz may not be another Orkut, but it’s certainly not another Google.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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