First impressions of Google Buzz: Smart, useful, long road ahead

Earlier this afternoon Google Buzz went live after a comprehensive launch event streamed live over YouTube. Buzz is a brand-new social tool that helps users to share updates, links, photos, videos, and more with the online world at large. Aimed at consumers and eventually enterprises, Buzz is Google's most serious Social Web play yet. Find out why with my detailed breakdown and analysis.

The real question is whether Buzz has arrived in enough time to make a big enough difference for Google in the social computing race. Earlier this afternoon Google Buzz went live after a comprehensive launch event streamed live over YouTube. Buzz is a brand-new social tool that helps users to share updates, links, photos, videos, and more with the online world at large.

Google founder Sergey Brin has been quoted as saying that Buzz gives us the ability to post a message to the Web without a 'to' line. The service is location-aware and works on the Web via Gmail or using a mobile interface on the iPhone or Android.

Given the huge amount of coverage already of this announcement, I'm not going to review the features of Google Buzz in detail, you can find that from the live coverage captured by ZDNet's Sam Diaz or the just-posted screenshot gallery. Below are my first impressions of Google Buzz from a strategic point of view, which I was able to use for a short while before writing this post.

An analysis of Google Buzz

One of the few places that Google doesn't dominate the Web today is in the social arena. It's a world where Facebook has a large lead and where Google isn't even #2 or #3. Consequently any entries that Google makes in this space are going to be very closely watched indeed. This happened with Google Wave last year and there's likely to be a virtual mountain of analysis and dissection before it's all done with this service.

Google Buzz: Their Social Web and Enterprise 2.0 Play

My take: Google Buzz is well-designed and useful but it's going to be seriously challenged because the very people most likely to be interested in Buzz will already have places to carry out their online social activities. This means Google Buzz may end up being more useful in places where there's a lot less dominance by the consumer Social Web, such as in the enterprise.

In no particular order, here's why Google Buzz is significant nonetheless, for as much for how it tells us how Google looks at the world of social computing as for the way these capabilities will almost certainly migrate and blur into a common social feature set in other Google products such as iGoogle, YouTube, and Picasa.

  • Buzz is an intelligent personal activity stream that's designed to scale. Buzz is not just a FriendFeed-like aggregator of everyone you know; it uses analysis to try to sort out what makes the most sense to you at the moment. A few minutes using Buzz convinced me that this is going to be essential if the service isn't going to be overwhelming. It's already fairly addictive with just a few followers, I can only imagine when you have hundreds. A few commentators, such as Jeff Jarvis, have already (rightly) pegged this a major attempt to address what Clay Shirky calls filter failure to cope with the information explosion challenge of social media and Enterprise 2.0. As Google pointed out in their introduction, dealing with this problem effectively in scale has significant business benefits. In particular, it'll be very good for Google's advertising model while making social computing potentially much for compelling and efficient for an important audience that's very valuable indeed: large enterprises.
  • Google believes that good data and computational analysis are the key to success with hyperlocal and hyperpersonal. And in this, they are probably not wrong. Geolocation abilities are built directly into Buzz as a primary dimension of its social experience (which was even described as 'beautiful', an adjective used more often by Apple for its products than by Google). As for hyperpersonal, in Buzz this is driven by underlying algorithms that filter and guide the user experience. Google's VP of Engineering, Vic Gundotra, noted that Google's insight into the early Web with the famous Page Rank algorithm drove their initial success. He went on to hint that they believe the same algorithmic insight into the Social Web will succeed with Buzz. Either way, Google has clearly used its competency in data and computation to attempt to one-up today's online social networking services. The stakes for this bet are high: The success (or any lack thereof) of the end result will in no small part be due to the real-world effectiveness of these features.

    I do think they're generally on the right track here but the left brain approach to the Web that dominates Google's product strategy tends to obscure the notion that social systems are also highly self-organizing and emergent. Capitalizing on this and encouraging bottom-up network effects has been the key to incredible success for those that have figured out how (i.e. Facebook and Twitter). Thus Buzz at times makes you feel like a rat in someone else's maze. Time will tell if this ultimately produces better outcomes or not.
  • Buzz exhibits a deep understanding of the importance of Social Web open standards. Vic Gundotra's recitation of the underlying standards that they focused on for the product, including OAuth, PubSubHubBub, Salmon, WebFinger, Activity Streams, and many others I covered here recently was much more than a demonstration of technical know-how. Open standards have driven the enormous success of the Web much more than any other platform. Backing the right horse when it comes to the standards of the Social Web, especially when you're not the dominant player, has made or broken more than a few large companies it comes to ultimate success in the computing industry. Google seems to clearly understand that this applies to the Social Web too (and assuming that many of their competitors don't, though certainly most do) speaks volumes, just as it proactively puts any competition that doesn't comply at a growing disadvantage, at least if Google predicts correctly. Buzz shows that Google is becoming increasingly shrewd at playing the open standards game and that it's just as important -- although also no substitute -- for having the best features.
  • The real-time searchable Web goes hand-in-hand with the social Web. Social interaction is a very temporal process and often works best in fast feedback loops and short time scales. Google Buzz isn't about simple chat or two-way communication, it's about you talking with the entire Web (or intranet.) Making this vision scale globally while instrumented with sophisticated algorithms is a core competency that Google brings to the table like few others. Google's increasing move into real-time feedback and live social search gives them access to a new kind of social: one in which social activity finds you before you even go and look for it. Google can take their competency at finding what matters and get it to you in real-time. Far from indexing the social Web, Google is putting itself in the position where it begins to actively route the social Web. The implications here are far reaching and has the potential to bring the world of social computing into an entirely new domain. It's one in which the very communication landscape is made more effectively (and ultimately workable) by social routers such as Buzz.
  • With Buzz, Google has let on that it has fully realized the central importance of the Social Web to consumers and (increasingly) businesses. Readers here know that I've made the argument that social computing in general has started to become the center of our computing and communication experiences. By not having a compelling offering in the space, Google has unexpectedly begun to be at risk of being marginalized in an important universe where it doesn't play very well. Buzz, however, is certainly not a Facebook killer and probably never will be. It's something unique and different yet potentially just as significant.

    This means if Facebook is your favorite social network to stay in contact with friends, co-workers, and family, Buzz is much more likely to be something that you'll use to figure out what's going on right now that's really important or get something done in a directed, collaborative manner. In this way, Google understands the usefulness of the Social Web and Buzz shows this fairly clearly in practice in a way that I never got from Google Wave. That Google decided to immediately open it up so widely in a few days shouldn't be underestimated either: This was obviously felt by them to be a time critical industry move.

For now, much of the analysis of Google Buzz is caught up in minor features that are missing (like two-way communication with Twitter) or in tactical aspects that must be addressed, such as no way to take advantage of your Facebook friends. These are excellent points but almost all of them will be addressed.

Buzz will do well, but as much as Google wants?

Barring a failure of their underlying approach to their filters and algorithms, Buzz is likely to be Google's most successful foray yet into the Social Web, and one which -- due to its open APIs -- just might be a contender. And while Buzz won't dethrone Facebook any time soon, it certainly will be compelling to the enterprise in the same way that Salesforce Chatter is: It makes existing intranets and Web applications better and new ones truly social in nature, with all the attendant benefits.

Related: Google Buzz: Forget Twitter, Microsoft's SharePoint is a bigger target

Overall, I'm impressed overall with Buzz, but the real question is whether it's arrived in enough time to make a big enough difference for Google in the social computing race. There's little doubt in my mind that it will be used extensively, but a lot of its successs will ultimately come down to timing. It may have made a lot more sense a year ago. But at this stage Google can't afford to experiment much. They need to hit it out the park in the the social computing arena and I suspect they've pinned some fairly high hopes on Buzz.

What did you think about Buzz and its business potential? And will you be considering it for getting things done in a social context, or not?