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Google+ takes on Facebook

June 29: Remember Google Buzz? What about Orkut, or Google Wave?

Google has tried several times, without much success, to take on Facebook and master social networking. Now it is making its biggest effort yet.

Yesterday, Google introduced a social networking service called the Google+ project which happens to look a lot like Facebook. The service, which is initially available to a select group of Google users who will soon be able to invite others, will let people share and discuss status updates, photos and links, much as they do on Facebook.

But the Google+ project will be different in one significant way, which Google hopes will be enough to convince people to use yet another social network.

It is meant for sharing with groups like colleagues, roommates or hiking friends not with all of one’s friends or the entire Web. It also offers group text messaging and video chat.

“In real life, we have walls and windows and I can speak to you knowing who’s in the room, but in the online world, you get to a ‘Share’ box and you share with the whole world,” said Bradley Horowitz, a vice-president for product management at Google, who is leading the company’s social efforts with Vic Gundotra, a senior vice- president for engineering.

When it comes to social networking, Google finds itself in an unusual position, one that its competitors in Web search know all too well: playing catch-up with a service that dominates the market.

The debut of Google+ will test whether Google can overcome its past stumbles in this area and deal with one of the most pressing challenges facing the company. At stake is Google’s status as the most popular entry point to the Web. When people post on Facebook, which is mostly off-limits to search engines, Google loses valuable information that could benefit its Web search, advertising and other products.

But Google+ may already be too late. In May, 180 million people visited Google sites, including YouTube, compared with 157.2 million on Facebook, according to comScore.

But Facebook users looked at 103 billion pages and spent an average of 375 minutes on the site, while Google users viewed 46.3 billion pages and spent 231 minutes. Advertisers pay close attention to those numbers and to the fact that people increasingly turn to Facebook and other social sites like Twitter to ask questions they used to ask Google, like a recommendation for a restaurant or doctor.

Analysts say that Facebook users are unlikely to duplicate their network of friends on Google+ and post to both sites, but that they could use them for different types of communication. Google+ could also attract Facebook holdouts who have been uncomfortable sharing too publicly.

“Can someone eclipse Facebook in terms of its hold? It is a fantastic broadcast mechanism,” said Charlene Li, a social media analyst and founder of Altimeter Group, a technology research firm. “But if Google becomes the owner of your private groups, it’s going to be a splintering of our social lives.”

Gundotra and Horowitz said that knowing more about individual Google users would improve all Google products, including ads, search, YouTube and maps.

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