Google has given Gmail a social-networking component with its introduction of Google Buzz, a service built inside of the webmail product that lets users post and share content in similar ways as they do in sites like Facebook and Twitter.
New social networking tool added to Gmail
How successful Google will be in convincing Gmail users to shift their social-networking tasks over to Buzz remains to be seen. Google believes Buzz offers enough improvements over existing social networks.
Specifically, Google Buzz has been designed to help users deal with the often massive amount of information they receive through their social-networking sites.
"Increasingly, it's becoming harder and harder to make sense and find the signal in the noise," said Bradley Horowitz, a Google vice president of product management, at a press conference on Tuesday.
The problem is only going to get worse, as people continue to find value in and embrace social media, he said. "We all feel this bombardment, this fatigue of having to go manually through and try to make sense of the torrent of information that's washing over us," he said. "This has become a large-scale problem, the kind we're good at [solving at] Google."
However, as Google officials acknowledged, Buzz right now has no links into Facebook, the world's largest social-networking site with more than 400 million members. This means that Buzz, at least for the moment, exists in parallel with Facebook, without the two of them intersecting, thus offering no help for users of that site, a major gap in Buzz's coverage.
As for Twitter, users can't post to Twitter from Buzz currently, but they can direct their Twitter posts to Buzz, as well as other content they post on public sites, like the Flickr and Picasa photo sharing sites from Yahoo and Google, respectively.
Google opted to build Buzz into Gmail because Gmail contacts lists are an underlying, existing social graph for users, officials said.
"Today, with Google Buzz, we're introducing a new way to share and communicate inside of Gmail. Buzz is like an entirely new world inside of Gmail," said Todd Jackson, Google Buzz product manager.
Jackson highlighted a number of areas in which Google believes Buzz improves upon existing social-networking sites. For example, Buzz builds a list of friends automatically, based on the Gmail contacts a person interacts most with. In addition, Buzz lets users include thumbnails when sharing web links, making them more graphic and attractive. Buzz also lets users attach various degrees of access to posts, from completely public to limited to hand-picked friends.
Leveraging its Gmail core, Buzz makes every post a Gmail conversation that gets updated in real time as friends add comments to it. Buzz also recommends posts from people who aren't necessarily on one's list of friends, based on certain 'signals' that the content might be of interest. Likewise, it also buries posts from friends that it determines are unlikely to appeal to the user.
"This is Google being Google, doing what they always do: collect everybody's information, organise it, become an intermediary and serve up ads around it. This plays to their classic strategy," said Jeremiah Owyang, an Altimeter Group analyst.
Buzz will be rolled out over the coming days to all Gmail users. Later on, a version of Buzz will surface in Google Apps, the collaboration and communication suite for workplaces.
Buzz will also be available on mobile devices in various places, including the Google.com mobile home page; at buzz.google.com, a web-based application for the iPhone and Google Android devices; and as a new layer on Google Maps for Mobile.
Google is playing catch-up in the social-networking field. Its Orkut social-networking site is popular in specific countries but doesn't come close to matching the worldwide popularity of Facebook.
"Google has a history of being late to the game when it comes to social, and they often are hit and miss," Owyang said.
With Buzz, Google is trying to leverage the connections people have made on its webmail service, a move similar to ones from other providers of internet communications services, such as Yahoo and AOL, with their respective IM and webmail products.
Owyang sees Buzz going deeper into social connections than the Yahoo and AOL attempts. He predicts the Google product will enjoy a certain degree of success but fall short of being a blockbuster.
"I'm optimistic there will be moderate Buzz adoption. I wouldn't say this will be the complete next social network," he said.
Augie Ray, a Forrester Research analyst, said that he expects people to give Buzz a test drive but doubts there will be a massive migration to it from Twitter and Facebook.
"While bringing relevance filtering to the noisy social media world could prove a significant advantage, this doesn't - yet - seem to be enough to pull people away from the networks they've already created elsewhere," Ray wrote.
"Buzz could end up supplementing rather than replacing users' other social networks for now," Ray added.
Competitively, Buzz is aimed squarely at Facebook, Owyang said. "This is a direct blow against Facebook. This is absolutely competitive," he said.
Facebook has become a serious Google competitor in areas beyond the core social-networking features. For example, in Facebook, people share photos, watch videos, read news articles, search the web, play games, exchange private messages, text chat and listen to music.
Google's Horowitz said Buzz is in its early stages and that Google has many opportunities to extend and improve it in the coming months.
For example, it would make sense to integrate Buzz with Google Wave, the application that meshes email, IM and document sharing, he said.
Google wants to aggressively provide APIs (application programming interfaces) in Buzz to help external developers build new applications for it and integrate Buzz with existing sites and software, said Vic Gundotra, a Google engineering vice president.
See also: Google Buzz review