Google+ Changes Game for Gaggle of 'Not Facebook' Startups

Features That Facebook Left Out Once Looked Like Opportunities. Then Along Came Google+

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Google's new social network Google+ may never dent Facebook's dominance, but its entrance into the fray is scrambling the emerging market of startups billing themselves as Facebook alternatives.

The current crop isn't looking to take down Facebook, now 750 million users strong. Rather, they're offering a more intimate social networking experience in the vein of Google+, positioning themselves as another option for Facebook users who might be tired of sifting through status updates from hundreds of so-called "friends" and navigating the site's sometimes cryptic privacy settings but who would never abandon it altogether.

Far from being "Facebook killers," sites like Path and Fridge and the forthcoming Altly -- perhaps the most overt in its self-positioning as a Facebook alternative in a manifesto posted by its founder -- are integrated with Facebook. These startups and others are being engineered to appeal to populations that aren't being fully served by Facebook -- whether they're concerned about privacy or Facebook's use of their personal data or something more specific.

But with Google+ adding some of that functionality, like "circles" of connections, "hangouts" and group chats called "huddles," the field of available niches just grew narrower. Given the ubiquity of Facebook Connect and now Google+, "it's become clear it will be harder for a startup to own the social graph," said David Cohen, founder of the incubator TechStars and an investor in the group text messaging startup GroupMe. "Rather than constantly trying to reinvent the social graph, we'll continue to see an increase in startups trying to leverage what already exists."

One such startup is Path, which allows users to privately share photos on the web. A large segment of its 500,000 users are families that have gravitated to Path, particularly new mothers who don't want to share their baby photos broadly. However, the vast majority of Path users sign in via Facebook and have their Path "moments" posted to their Facebook walls, where they're only viewable to friends designated in their Path settings.

An Ex-Facebooker himself, Mr. Morin says Path is complementary to his former employer. But he also thinks that exploring how to provide more nuanced ways for people to share online is a broad consumer and technology trend. "To me, whether or not Facebook builds the best sharing experiences on the web - I don't think that that matters as much," he said. "I think that ultimately Facebook is the best identity platform that 's ever been created. I think that that 's really where the value comes from."

But startups that offer sharing within smaller social circles could now also be tasked with differentiating themselves from Google+ -- which has a Circles feature allowing users to arrange their friends in different buckets for sharing purposes. According to Mr. Morin, Path is a mobile experience while Google+ is a desktop experience. (Google reportedly offered to buy Path for $100 million earlier this year, but the offer was declined.)

Austin Chang of Fridge, a site focused on group sharing with about 35,000 users, notes that his product also has the location-based functionality to allow strangers to connect in temporary groups in the shared context of a wedding or a conference. Similarly, GroupMe allows the creation the equivalent of SMS group chats, turf seemingly staked out by Google's Huddle feature, though GroupMe co-founder points out that his product is device-agnostic.

But they might be fighting an uphill battle if Google+ has staying power after its hype -filled limited release. If nothing else, Google just sucked a lot of oxygen out of the room, and one founder said privately that Google+ is causing a re-think on how to forge ahead.

"It's going to be very hard to be a David," said Charlene Li, founder of the Altimeter Group, a social media advisory firm, noting that Google's existing user base gives it a huge advantage. Conversely, startups will have to start a relationship with people looking for a Facebook alternative from scratch.

"You trust Google, you have a long history with Google," said Ms. Li. "Who's Path? Who's Altly? Do I trust them with this information?"

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