Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Social Gaming: Catalyst to Build Critical Mass?

Last week I wrote about Facebook getting head-to-head against Google. As contest to attract user traffic heats up, both Facebook and Google are finding themselves on direct collision path. Jay Baer wrote about them in his blog while back (thanks to Minwoo for forwarding the link), and I think his observation on Facebook microblogging trend and continual expansion of Facebook 'like' capability nibbling at Google's search dominance is true. Although his declaration of standalone websites getting killed is overblown, it's clear that Facebook's roadmap includes many marching orders into Google's territory today.

Google hasn't been standing still either. Anticipating growing threat from Facebook, Google has launched Google Buzz and search integration with Twitter. But Google Buzz has not been successful in building critical mass of users. If your network of friends on Google Buzz are anything like mine, my Google Buzz page has been anything but buzzing; it feels more like Circuit City just before its final days of existence. Not exactly what social network is meant to be. It's got 'network', but not 'social' part.

What could have possibly gone wrong? Google with all its gmail popularity and list of contacts to jump start the social connections, just couldn't get social networking site to gain momentum. Why would this be?

I think one of important aspects of social networking that Google missed was the whole fun and games aspect. Think of early days of Facebook and any other social networking sites, and ask yourself 'why I should join yet another social networking sites on the block?' All social networking sites started out with niche market of users who had reasons to join the site. Facebook started gathering all college students to interact with, Twitter started gathering momentum when there were festival or big sporting events to talk about (2007 South By Southwest festival featured live twitter feed on two 60-inch screens), and LinkedIn started gathering business folks who wanted to connect with other business men and women to extend their network reach. Ok. What about Google Buzz? Hmm... I don't remember a clear niche market that Buzz was going after. Instead it had shotgun approach of let's invite everyone on gmail, suck in all email contacts to jump start the user base, and see if people start using the new social medium. Just a wrong approach to take. In fact all Google got was nasty PR from pre-populating Google Buzz network with gmail contact list, and $8.5 million loss to settle class action lawsuit.

Google thinks it got this point right this time. It's investing heavily on social gaming aspect from recent series of acquisition. By betting on social gaming, it hopes to bring back fun and games back into its social networking strategy. I think Google's strategy is on right track. Considering +80 million users were active on Farmville out of 500 million user base, social gaming component has been indispensible component in building core active Facebook users. Google's challenge now is to balance the fun and games aspects with clear focus on target user base. It may be enough to start gathering critical mass from social gaming user pool, but Google has to start aiming for bigger pie to compete with Facebook's growing clout.

One thing that's going for Google is that they can learn from Facebook's mistakes. I hope Google doesn't repeat the mistake of putting Farmville update on my Google Buzz page.

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