Google Sees Facebook Threat in String of Deals

At Issue: Can a Company Built for Efficiency Also Help People Waste Time?

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SAN FRANCISCO ( -- Google products are efficient, slick and -- as the coders say -- elegant. They get you from point A to point B fast. Really fast.

But are they fun?

That's the question for the search engine as it struggles to gain a foothold in the fast-growing and here-to-stay social web. That web isn't marked by speed and elegance but rather by pit stops and side roads that allow people to pull over, meet new or old friends, play a game and buy souvenirs. In short, have fun.

While Google has had a mostly forgettable history in the space, from Orkut to Buzz, the company's 2010 acquisitions indicate it's buying the talent and technologies to make a play for social, largely through the popular social-gaming space. This month, the shopping spree added up to almost $300 million and included social-gaming company Slide and virtual currency maker Jambool, whose product is similar to Facebook Credits, and, a visual search company.

On the horizon is Google's much-anticipated GoogleMe, a social tool the company has been building from its own platforms like Gmail and Gchat, as well as scrap parts collected during the year.

The goal? Take a bite out of Facebook's momentum.

"They got a couple of companies that have real estate inside of Facebook," said Chris Cunningham, CEO of Appssavvy, a firm that pairs marketers with app developers. "With these acquisitions they got some intel and some momentum. Even though Google doesn't have a relationship with Facebook, it does have a $100 million investment in Zynga, the most powerful social gaming company online and creator of Farmville and Mafia Wars. Google is putting its chips on the table and it has ability to build its own identity around social gaming."

Threat to search
Why are games important to Google and to Facebook? "They're a huge part of what people do when they're in social networks and they are very addictive, they keep people coming back," said Debra Williamson, social network analyst at eMarketer. Nielsen data show Americans spend 906 million hours a month inside of social networks and 407 million hours a month gaming. Compare that to 138 million hours a month searching and it's clear why Google is gobbling up start-ups like Pac Man chasing ghosts.

Last week, Google invited game industry aficionados to the Googleplex in Mountain View, Calif., for their Think series -- this one predictably called ThinkGaming and organized by Kevin Sung, the AdWords game evangelist at Google.

"Where Google and Facebook can meet is the games platform," Joel Andren, marketing director of Rixty, a virtual in-game payment company, said at the event. "Google has demonstrated ability to create platforms quickly, just look at Chrome and Android. Google can do this and it's no small feat -- to have hundreds of millions of players online at the same time."

"If they're really gonna go head to head with Facebook, Google would have to have the support of the developers' community," said Melody Schaeffer, director of the Silicon Valley International Games Developers Association. "Having their support drives their applications, and Facebook is really nothing but a big application."

She added that, unlike Facebook, which is restricted to its own API, Google's platform supports most of the languages. "It's a developer's playground right now."

Chasing user attention
Clearly, Google's major impetus for a big move into social is user attention, which in the end leads to money. Google dominates search advertising and cannot let Facebook creep further into its turf.

"Google sees Facebook as a very legitimate threat to its future search business," Ms. Williamson said. "Facebook has ability to deliver ads before you search for anything, before you even tell anyone what you are interested in or what you are looking for -- Facebook can deliver advertising without a user having to ever perform a search. Google has to wait until you go to that search box and type something and then you get an ad."

Despite the volume of the cries over privacy, most people appear willing to live with the trade-off -- and already do with Gmail and Facebook; in effect, "my information for your product."

Games revenues grow
EMarketer expects Facebook to reach $1.28 billion in revenue in 2010, a tiny slice of Google's $23 billion, but with 500 million users and growing, Facebook is showing no sign of slowing down.

Despite that, Google is still winning in terms of capturing user intention, if not attention. "On Google I type, 'flights to Paris,' so the ads I'm served are on my intention to fly to Paris," said Scott Hirsch, VP of business development at Get Satisfaction, a company that provides customer service to online communities. "On Facebook I type, 'I love Paris,' it doesn't mean I'm going to Paris. To match Google's value they need to figure out how to capture user intention."

The real threat of Facebook to Google is that when users are on Facebook, they have less and less reason to leave. A recent Nielsen analysis shows that nearly 23 percent of Americans spend their internet time on social networking and blogs sites with only four percent of their time spent searching.

"Social networking is pretty much the opposite of why Google exists," Mr. Hirsch said. His suggestion? "Don't take me directly from here to there but show me my friend's picture or what dumb song my friend is listening to...make me waste time!"

Google Ramps Up Acquisitions Pace

Google's CEO Eric Schmidt said last fall that Google expects to buy one company a month as it revs up business following the economic downturn. If the last six months is any indication, he underestimated.

Company Date Acquired Price Tag What It Does
On2 February 2010 $124 million Online video encoding
Aardvark February 2010 $50 million Social search company founded by ex-Googlers
reMail February 2010 unknown Mobile email search/prioritization
Picnik March 2010 $5 million Photo editing without leaving the Picasa site
DocVerse March 2010 $25 million A direct connection between Google Docs and Microsoft Office
Agnilux April 2010 undisclosed Processor technology
Plink April 2010 unknown Visual Search Engine; the producer Google Goggles
Episodic April 2010 undisclosed Host, stream and monetize live and on-demand videos
Labpixies April 2010 $25 million (reported) Best known for its FloodIt! mobile game
Bump April 2010 $30 million Creator of BumpTop, a 3D desktop interface with multitouch capabilities
Invite Media June 2010 $81 million Allows advertisers to buy audiences, rather than websites
Ruba May 2010 undisclosed A visual travel guide and tour review site
Simplify Media May 2010 undisclosed Music for mobile
GIPS May 2010 $68 million Platform for VOIP for Android
ITA July 2010 $700 million Travel search and flight information
Metaweb July 2010 undisclosed Creators of Freebase, an "open shared database of the world's knowledge"
Instantiations August 2010 undisclosed API tools
Slide August 2010 $182 million Builds games, some of which already have a foothold inside of Facebook
Jambool August 2010 $70 million Allows users to buy virtual currency in any online game with cash August 2010 $100 million (reported) Users can search by detail, color, shape and pattern
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