Why Google Buzz Could Be A Bust For SMBs

Google is gunning for Facebook -- again. Will its efforts really build a better mousetrap, or will they simply make a mess out of Gmail?
Google is gunning for Facebook -- again. Will its efforts really build a better mousetrap, or will they simply make a mess out of Gmail?Earlier today, the company unveiled what it calls Google Buzz. A CNET article offers a detailed writeup on the project: The company wants to take what it does best--organizing Web content by relevancy--and apply it to social media, perhaps the most disorganized segment of the Web. Google Buzz is its most ambitious attempt to do just that, marrying the Gmail Web interface with status updates and media-sharing technology in an attempt to convince the social media addicts of the world to spend more time on Google's sites than on competitors like Facebook or Twitter; generating valuable data in the process.

"It has become a core belief of ours that organizing the social information on the Web is a Google-scale problem," said Todd Jackson, Gmail product manager, demonstrating Google Buzz at the company's headquarters a day before Tuesday's event. An astounding amount of social-media content is produced every day, across Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, and personal blogs, and Google's faith that it could one day index and organize the entire Internet has been shaken by this explosion in Web content. The real "Google-scale problem" here isn't organizing social information on the Web. It is figuring out a way to do the job without running Gmail off a cliff.

There is no doubt that Google has the technology to make this happen. Google Buzz could create a sort of connective tissue that links a number of disparate applications, from Google Maps to YouTube, and the company also has big plans to extend the service into the mobile application space.

I'm sure the results will play well with some users. Others, however, including many businesses that use Gmail, may view this as an annoying distraction -- or worse, as a privacy and security risk.

Here are a few questions that Google will have to answer as it rolls out the service:

- Can Google avoid the privacy and security concerns associated with Facebook? We already know that Facebook can burn users who don't pay careful attention to their privacy settings. Google must walk a fine line here. One one hand, it needs to use the privacy issue to get a leg up on Facebook. On the other, it needs enough access to social networking data to drive advertising revenue.

If Google fails to achieve the perfect balance between these two goals, it won't just annoy individual users. It could also motivate more companies to block Gmail at the firewall, just as they block Facebook. That's a trend Google obviously does not want to encourage.

- Will Google sacrifice usability in order to pack even more features into the Gmail interface? This is a tool that already employs a rather homely, and in my opinion cluttered, UI. If Google Buzz just smears another layer of lipstick on this pig, some users will give up -- even if they have the option to customize or to remove unwanted elements.

- Can Google beat Facebook this late in the game? Google has tried more than once to play in the social networking business, and all of its efforts have failed. While the company's Orkut service, for example, is popular in some parts of the world, it's a non-entity in the United States. At this point, Google Buzz will face an uphill battle to achieve the sort of mindshare it needs to grow organically.

Google simply may have missed the boat this time around. Yet even if Google Buzz wins, it could be a Pyrrhic victory for many Gmail users. Businesses that use Gmail don't want Google to build a better Facebook. They want Gmail to deliver rock-solid reliability, adequate security, and a polished user interface.

I'm betting that whatever Google Buzz brings to the party, those three things won't be on the list.