Google’s failed plot for world domination

These days it might seem like Google is a villain in the style of old pulp adventures, plotting to take over the world from its secret lair. Googleplex isn’t an underground, Ken Adams-designed base and CEO Eric Schmidt isn’t Ernst Stavro Blofeld, but the analogy isn’t far off.

The Internet and software company has been rapidly expanding in recent years, launching new programs aimed at seizing a chunk of the social media. However, this might be a case of great effort and poor execution on Google’s part.

Google released its latest pet project, Google Buzz, Feb. 9. Buzz is essentially Google’s attempt to make a stake in the social networking realm and take on Facebook and Twitter.

Buzz is an add-on to Google’s e-mail system, Gmail. It acts as a kind of catch-all RSS feed for different sites like Flickr, Twitter, YouTube and Blogger. Instead of going to all of those sites, Buzz puts all of the information streams in one place. It even has Facebook-style “liking” options for the posts. The idea seems to have been to create a one stop-shop application that would eliminate the need to go to each of the websites individually.

But Buzz can’t compete with the social networking giants. The application is limited only to Gmail users, and, since Gmail is not used universally, the user pool is intrinsically limited. At the same time, it is difficult to turn off, and the constant stream of feeds and updates leaves a simple Gmail page cluttered, so anyone who tires of it is in for a hassle in shutting off the application.

Another key problem with the program is that it automatically makes a contact out of anyone a user has communicated with, even if the user doesn’t want it to. Who wants everyone attached to their internship application e-mails and Craigslist purchases to suddenly pop up in the same frame as current friends and co-workers? It is definitely a privacy error on Google’s end, and one that’s already earned it a strong backlash.

Google Buzz comes in the aftermath of Google Wave, the company’s attempt to make a message board and collaboration hybrid that seemed to be an evolution of the iGoogle concept. Despite strong hype — invitations to use it sold on eBay — Wave failed to impress because of a combination of a confusing interface and advertising oversaturation.

While both Buzz and Wave have ultimately been disappointments, the show of ambition on Google’s part is clear. The company does not want to simply be a search engine or an e-mail server. It wants to be the reigning software and application host for Internet users, specifically the younger, college-aged demographic.

Gmail is already popular with students, and iGoogle, with features like Google Documents, is used on campuses across the world. Google Chrome has become a popular web browser, competing with Safari, Firefox and Internet Explorer. Google clearly has a popular and expansive software library, and its popularity with college students is only growing.

Yet, taking on the social networking giants seems too bold a move, even for Google. And that’s not counting the fact that Buzz was essentially just a way to link Gmail to sites like Twitter and Flickr. It isn’t even a fully independent networking site.

Part of the problem is that Google is trying to become a social networking center from the top down. It’s a kind of corporate-run attempt at getting people to interact. It might get a few users, but what ultimately made sites like Facebook and Twitter popular was grassroots growth. They grew from word of mouth and popularity, not because a company created them and relied on reputation. Wave and Buzz failed because they were not natural trends.

Google needs to refocus and try something new. The company needs less integration and more innovation. Gmail and iGoogle were a hit because they offered something new — a streamlined, cleaner approach to an existing technology. Simply offering to host information from different sites isn’t creative — it’s borrowing.

Google clearly has the resources to do something revolutionary outside of search engines, but right now it needs to go back to the drawing board. While these recent attempts might have ultimately failed, the ambition is clear, and it is only a matter of time before the next big Google application comes out. The company wants to be the pre-eminent Internet software developer, and it could easily succeed. The only question is how soon will Google make that goal a reality?

Who knows, maybe Google’s global Internet domination will come sooner than we think.

Nicholas Slayton is a freshman majoring in print journalism. His column, “A Series of Tubes,“ runs Thursdays.