Google Social Search Is Largely Untapped, Says Brin

Google co-founder Sergey Brin Jan. 20 tipped his hand that he is driving the company's social search efforts. The company is seeking to gain ground versus Facebook in this regard.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin admitted that real-time and identity-based services related to social networking are important areas for Google as it seeks to stem the tide of traffic flowing to Facebook.

He also allowed that the search engine has only "touched 1 percent" of what social can lend to search. Brin's admission was a response to a question on the topic during the company's fourth-quarter earnings call Jan. 20, where Google CEO Eric Schmidt said he was handing over the CEO mantle to co-founder Larry Page April 4.

Brin is currently trying to hash together what Schmidt has described this year as a layered approach to social networking. His comments on the call indicated that real-time integration and social tools are key for Google going forward.

Google last year began incorporating Twitter tweets, along with Facebook and MySpace status updates, in Web pages. The company launched Google Social Search a year ago this week.

The service drops content from searchers' contacts directly into search results. The service requires users to have a Google profile and be logged into their Google account. Google then builds a bridge between users' Google accounts and their Google profiles, surfacing users' content in what Google calls a "social circle."

However, this service hasn't yielded any discernible payoff, as the social search results appear at the bottom of search results pages. To many users who don't scroll down that far, the social search results may as well be invisible.

It is quite possible Google may have been able to use the search results that it collected on users to refine its forthcoming social products, currently code-named Google +1.

"This is really just the tip of the iceberg," Brin said on the call. "I think there is far more opportunity. We've touched just 1 percent of the capabilities that could be deployed in that realm, and I think you should expect us to continue to develop those kinds of capabilities."

However, Brin declined to provide specifics about the social software products and features Google has in the works, noting that he didn't want to risk having the still-under-wraps Web services labeled vaporware. This was a not-so-subtle allusion to Apple COO Tim Cook's recent comment that forthcoming Android 3.0 tablets are "vapor."

Many analysts view the leveraging of users' Google profile information as the social graph believed to be Google's key weapon in its social challenge versus Facebook, whose membership is 600 million-plus and rising.

Forrester Research analyst Augie Ray said Google's approach to social has been quite disjointed despite lots of investments in different products in different corners of the company.

"What you didn't see was a real cohesive social approach, either one that was cohesive around social itself or one that was integrated into Google's core product experience," Ray added.

"I think that has been a loss for Google and why it has continued to lag some other companies that have been leaders in the Web 2.0 era."