Google’s Trojan Horse

Did the search giant just sneakily launch a Facebook killer?

For years, Google has had me all wrong. Type my name into the search engine and, amid a catalog of my many amazing achievements, you’ll find the most scurrilous stuff: This guy thinks I’m an idiot, someone else says I’m misguided, and Wikipedia calls me“an avid Facebook enthusiast,” which is a crude exaggeration. I’m not alone; for many people, vanity searching can be an irresistible but crushing exercise, like asking a plastic surgeon to scrutinize your face. Is that really how the world sees me? You’re shattered if Google says something nasty about you, but you’re also shattered if Google says nothing about you. It’s no wonder that “online reputation management” is a growth industry.

Now Google itself is offering some solace. Last week, the company gave self-Googlers more power to control their online image. Now, in addition to everything else that Google turns up on a vanity search, it will also display a link to your Google Profile—a page that Google is encouraging everyone to create. Type in “farhad manjoo,” and at the bottom of the first page you’ll see a link to my profile, which leaves out the nasty bits—I tell the world about my job, my schooling, my link-blog, and my book but not that some people on the Web have accused me of villainy.

In a blog post, Brian Stoler, a Google software engineer, wrote that the company is adding profiles to search results in order to “give you greater control over what people find when they search for your name.” That sounds sensible enough. But some observers see a more ambitious agenda. Why would Google want to encourage people to create profiles of themselves? Because it aims to take on Facebook. By promising improved vanity searches, the thinking goes, Google is getting us to tell the company a lot more about ourselves. In the process, it’s garnering enough information to build the world’s largest social network—and make a fortune besides.

If the speculation proves true, Google’s plan would be both deviously brilliant and also a little scary. Why would Google want a social network? To get to know you better—and, thus, to serve you more profitable ads. Google has long made gobs of money by running ads based on search keywords—if you search for “shoes,” Google runs spots for Zappos and DSW, and it makes a few cents if you click on them. But last month Google announced that it would join many of its rival Web companies in adopting “behavioral targeting,” a method of serving ads that relies on a much more extensive picture of your online activity. In the future, instead of showing you an ad targeted simply to your search keyword, Google might look at everything it has learned about you over an extended period of time in order to give you a message better-tailored to your interests. If you type in “shoes,” Google might be able to tell if you’re a nurse who lives in New York or a construction worker who lives in Miami—and would show you shoe ads customized to your character. (See this blog post for instructions on how to manage or opt out of Google’s new ad plan.)

Here’s where the social network might come in. Google already knows a lot about you; through its search engine, its vast advertising network, and its many Web applications (Gmail, YouTube, etc.), the company can probably already glean enough information about a Web surfer to be able to tell the difference between a nurse and a construction worker. But a Google social network would add one more dimension to the picture—it could mine your relationships, too. So if it found that your buds totally love Judd Apatow comedies, it might guess that you’d like them, too—and thus show you an ad for Funny People the next time you visit YouTube.

You might notice a couple of problems with this theory. First, Facebook, MySpace, and other networks can already examine your relationships—and none of them has seen anything near the financial success that social-networking evangelists have long promised. Indeed, as I argued a couple weeks ago, it’s still a mystery whether sites like Facebook, which spend vast amounts on infrastructure to host all the junk you put online, will ever see huge profits. That’s because advertisers are wary of running spots alongside user-generated content. So if other social sites haven’t managed to turn your relationships into billions, how would Google succeed?

Because Google controls a much larger swath of the Web than its rivals. Facebook can use what it knows about your relationships to serve you targeted ads on—well, pretty much just on Facebook. That isn’t much use, because people aren’t very interested in commerce when they’re checking in with their friends. But Google operates the Web’s most far-reaching advertising network, so whatever it learns about you while you’re interacting with your friends can be used to target you later on, while you’re in some more ad-friendly part of the Web—when you’re reading the New York Times, or watching YouTube, or searching for a Mother’s Day present. By using your “social graph” as just one factor in a much larger behavioral profile, the company could finally turn social-networking into a killer business.

The possibility of Google getting into the social-networking business might sound vaguely familiar. That’s because it’s happened before—and it didn’t work. In 2004, the company launched Orkut, a social network along the lines of Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook. Orkut took off in Brazil and India, where it remains quite popular, but it fizzled in much of the rest of the world. Many of Google’s other social ventures have proved similarly unspectacular. Last summer, for instance, Google launched an abysmal 3-D virtual-world called Lively; in the fall, it shuttered the project.

But to profit from your relationships, Google doesn’t necessarily need to build a social network that you find fun—that is, it doesn’t have to build an alternative to Facebook. Instead, all it really needs is to get you to tell it more about your connections. I’ll bet that a promise of improved vanity search results will be enough to bring a lot of people on board. Indeed, even if you’re not so vain, it makes good sense to set up a page on Google. A Google Profile is a good way to present your best side to potential employers, prospective dates, future in-laws, or your parole board—anyone you’d like to impress. Why wouldn’t you sign up?

And you might find yourself giving Google a lot of personal info, too. In setting up my profile, I handed Google the links to my pages at Twitter, Facebook, and Friendfeed. By analyzing those sites—not to mention everything that it already knows about my contacts through my activity at Gmail and Google Voice—the company could probably create a startlingly precise map of my friends and family. You can think of it as a shadow social network: All of a sudden, Google has the ability to traverse my entire social circle, and I didn’t even have to approve a single friend request.