How Google Can Win the Social Network War

First there was Orkut, FriendFeed, MySpace. Then Facebook came and took 750 million people behind its wall as they eagerly connected with school friends, shared baby photos and played Farmville.

Now Google Plus, the coolest kid in the block, has arrived. Facebook and Google seem to be competing to build the best single website where billions of users go to keep in touch with their friends and family, get the news and more. But it doesn’t have to be this way: Google Plus can be part of a federation of social sites.

Google Plus is a good product that has already reached 10 million users with innovative features like Circles and Hangouts. Google plans to add API soon, so that outside developers can add even more features to it. Facebook, however, is not standing still: Mark Zuckerberg will keep adding features, improving the design and pushing the expansion of its great walled garden beyond 1 billion users. And the competition will continue, until the race is about who builds the biggest single garden.

There is one thing I believe Google can do to win this race now: change the rules of the competition. Google should make Google Plus the (biggest?) part of a federation of Plus-like sites. Imagine hosting providers like 1and1 or Rackspace offering Plus sites alongside their email and web hosting. I could run my own plus.maffulli.net and use that as a private space to communicate with my extended family around the world. The local church, the schools, all could run their own Plus and the participants in those group could still add people to circles across different domains, like you can send email regardless of where the recipient has her account. Google Plus is email on steroids and the Circles are the next generation of the addressbook.

Facebook is good at building walls: the site is designed to attract users inside, convince them with subtle tricks to leave their precious personal data on the site — then they sell that information to the highest bidder to serve ads.

Google, on the other hand, is good at crawling data across distributed sources and extracting information from it. By fostering the creation of thousands or millions of Plus-like sites, all linked together, Google can pull the rug out from under Facebook and end the competition.

Google has all the knowledge on how to make money out of such federated structure: email is a federation, the World Wide Web itself can be read as a federation. Google’s core competence is how to extract information from distributed data and use that to present valuable advertising to distributed services. Instead of billions of users on one site, think of tens of billions of Google Plus sites, most of them showing AdSense.

Do us a favor, Google: end the race, kill Facebook or Tulalip before it even starts and any other service that tries to build silos to contain users. Enable a federation on Google Plus and keep on innovating.

Article first published as How Google Can Win the Social Network War on Technorati.