Google, Yahoo Upgrading Their Social Networks?

With news coming hard and fast about the popularity of social networks lately, it’s not surprising that Google and Yahoo want a piece of the pie. Both search engines already have social networks in their stables, but they are lackluster performers. In this article, we’ll take a quick look at Google’s Orkut and Yahoo 360 and consider what both companies have in the works.

First, let’s take a look at Google’s Orkut. To all accounts, it only became really popular in Brazil and India. For a very long time, you could only join if someone invited you, which may have hampered its growth. Now, all you need is a Google account, which is available for free; anyone who has Gmail has a Google account, for instance. But this change was not very well-publicized.

Here’s a screen shot of the initial profile page you fill out when you join Orkut:

 

As you can see, certain fields are obligatory (name, gender, birth year and country). You can lock certain information to control who sees it: only yourself, friends, friends of friends, or everyone. And you can indicate your interests: friends, activity partners (whatever that means), business networking, or dating. The dating option includes a drop-down to choose your preferred dating gender – and “both” is a possible choice.

After you have filled out this information, you can check to see what your profile looks like. If you’re at all familiar with online dating sites, you’ll know that the small amount of information requested is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to putting together a complete profile; there’s a lot more information you can add. As you’ll see from the screen shot below, Orkut is no exception.

 

I’m sorry the screen shot isn’t clearer. Anyway, you’ll notice that there are tabs for “Social,” “Professional,” and “Personal” parts of the profile; as the profile owner, it can also be viewed as it would look to yourself, friends, friends of friends, and everyone. Right now I have the “social” tab showing; it can be edited to include a ton of information, such as sexual orientation, whether you smoke, drink, have pets and/or a web page, what your “passions” are, favorite sports, and more.

The other two tabs show information appropriate to those topics; for example, the Professional tab has a spot for career skills, while the Personal tab lets you edit information that would be appropriate to share with someone who might be interested in dating you. You can also add feeds, photos, video and more to your profile. You can join communities, search, add friends, and check messages; I didn’t see a way to start a blog however.

In some ways it’s a shame that this social networking site never caught on in the U.S. It has a nice interface that lets you do more than one kind of networking in the same place. That could be kind of risky though; do you want your business networking contacts to see what’s behind your Personal tab? And how easy is it to control that? But there are other issues, such as no possibility to blog and no easy way to interface with certain other Google products.

I signed up for Orkut specifically for this article, so it’s no wonder my profile is pretty blank. I’ve been a member of Yahoo 360 for a little longer, but I haven’t really put it to use. Here’s a screen shot:

 

I can get messages, and I do belong to several groups, which are not visible in this screen shot, but are shown on this page. For purposes of this article, I decided to create a Yahoo 360 page. It was an easy three-step process, in which Yahoo actually asked me about my interests and such before building the page with my chosen theme. Here’s the result:

 

You can see all the features that anyone who uses a social network expects: a place to upload photos, display and invite your friends, start a blog, share music, write reviews, create lists, add an RSS feed, even start your profile with a comment (I edited mine to say “Every profile is a work in progress; this one is no exception.”). In the lower right hand corner of my profile you can see part of the symbols for two of the groups to which I belong. Of course it’s easy to add friends and communicate with them via IM, sending them a message for their inbox, or leaving a quick comment on their profile.

I went through both Orkut and Yahoo so quickly that I’m sure there are features I missed. Still, when you look at the two social networks, you realize that they’re not really offering anything that’s particularly innovative. You can get most of these features with other social networks and then some. For example, Facebook opened itself up to outside developers so their users get to play with tons of widgets. So what do Yahoo and Google plan to do to prop up their sagging profiles in the social network field?

There are lots of rumors circulating about Yahoo Mosh. TechCrunch even managed to get a screen shot that looks rather like Darth Vader holding a banana in one hand and an electric guitar in the other. Let’s see if we can sort through what’s circulating about it.

First of all, there is a real URL; it’s mosh.yahoo.com. But don’t expect to get any information by going to that URL unless you have a corporate Yahoo password. If you don’t, this is what you’ll see:

 

I’m no hacker; just for the hell of it I tried logging in with my regular Yahoo account information. No dice.

TechCrunch also posted a tantalizing tip-off they received about Yahoo looking for summer interns to help with “this new cool social network project.” Yahoo wants someone who is “very active on MySpace and Facebook, loves social networks” and has certain other interesting qualifications, like being “damn funny.” From the rest of the post, it sounds as if Yahoo is looking for someone who will be part evangelist and part alpha/beta tester. It looks like a lot of party-throwing will be involved, as well as assisting with changes to the product. Yahoo wants a college student with strong communication skills (well duh!) who plans to go into “marketing, advertising, or PR.”

Yahoo tried to buy Facebook at one time; others have speculated that the venerable search engine was interested in buying Friendster or Bebo. From this TechCrunch posting, I’d guess that Yahoo is trying to set up a social network to compete directly with Facebook; they seem to be going for exactly the same demographic that Facebook originally targeted. Most people seem to think that Yahoo 360 will fade away once Yahoo Mosh comes online, but I’m not convinced; I think it’s more likely that 360 will be rolled into Mosh, because 360 seems to appeal to a wider demographic than Mosh is aiming to reach. Eventually we’ll find out the truth.

Socialstream is a project that was sponsored by Google at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute. The point of the project was to “Rethink and reinvent online social networking,” according to its home page. The initial idea was to improve Orkut, but naturally the project took things further than that.

As the site explains, “After initial brainstorming and research we chose to focus on the effects of a new model for online social networking: a unified social network that, as a service, provides social data to many other applications.” In other words, the idea behind Socialstream is that a user could participate in many different social networks through one place, perhaps even one unified interface.

If launched, then, Socialstream would act rather like a social network aggregator. Frankly, the idea sounds wonderful. I’m not exactly promiscuous when it comes to social networks, but I considered myself a member of three very different online social networks before writing this article, and I just joined two more. In case you were wondering, I’m not counting MySpace or Facebook, because I don’t currently belong to either one. Socialstream could help bring some sanity to the lives of online social butterflies!

It’s more than just a matter of aggregating content, however; Socialstream is also about presentation. Users like to interact with their data in different ways, so Socialstream offers “a timeline and content overview that provides serendipitous exploration of content, as well as a contact list that provides a structured list of all unread content updates.”

Socialstream offers a number of other interesting features. Users can share content across any participating network, handling “photos, blogs, video, audio, events, and many forms of structured data.” The aggregation feature makes it easy to see all of your posts and track comments regardless of where they were made. And for those who have technophobic friends who might want to participate if all the work was done for them, “Socialstream allows members to send out a starter account template pre-populated with specified contacts.” This gets around the off-putting feeling of joining a network where you don’t know anybody (or only one or two people).

It sounds great; when will it become real, or at least go into public beta? It might be a while. A Google spokesperson said that “The Socialstream concept was created by Carnegie Mellon students as a result of their research into social networking. The project that led to the Socialstream concept concluded in 2006, and it is not part of any current product roadmap.” On the other hand, Red Herring reported that one of the students on the project, J. Nicholas Jitkoff, has been hired at Google. I have a feeling this is not the last we’ll see of Socialstream.

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