Inside google+ — how the search giant plans to go social

Google, the world’s largest search company, is formally making its pitch to become a major force in social networking. The product it announced Tuesday is called Google+, and observers might wonder whether it’s simply one more social effort by a company that’s had a lousy track record in that field to date.

Parts of it certainly seem to appear similar to what we’ve seen before. One significant component is a continuous scroll called “the stream” that’s an alternative to Facebook’s news feed — a hub of personalized content. It has a companion called “Sparks,” related to one’s specified interests. Together they are designed to be a primary attention-suck of Google users. Google hopes that eventually people will gravitate to the stream in the same way that members of Facebook or Twitter constantly check those continuous scrolls of personalized information.

The second important app is Circles, an improved way to share information with one’s friends, family, contacts and the public at large. It’s an management tool that’s a necessary component of any social network — a way to organize (and recruit) fellow members of the service.

But as I learned in almost year of following the project’s development, with multiple interviews with the team and its executives, Google+ is not a typical release. Developed under the code name Emerald Sea, it is the result of a lengthy and urgent effort involving almost all of the company’s products. Hundreds of engineers were involved in the effort. It has been a key focus for new CEO Larry Page.

The parts announced Tuesday represent only a portion of Google’s plans. In an approach the company refers to as “rolling thunder,” Google has been quietly been pushing out pieces of its ambitious social strategy — there are well over 100 launches on its calendar. When some launches were greeted by yawns, the Emerald Sea team leaders weren’t ruffled at all — lack of drama is part of the plan. Google has consciously refrained from contextualizing those products into its overall strategy.

That will begin now, with the announcement of the two centerpieces of Google+. But even this moment — revealed in a blog post that marks the first limited “field tests” outside the company — will be muted, because it marks just one more milestone in a long, tough slog to remake Google into something more “people-centric.”

“We’re transforming Google itself into a social destination at a level and scale that we’ve never attempted — orders of magnitude more investment, in terms of people, than any previous project,” says Vic Gundotra, who leads Google’s social efforts.

Some think the battle is already lost. Bloggers and critics opine that social software just isn’t in Google’s DNA. Google is all about algorithms, they say, not interactions between humans. And where’s Larry Page’s Facebook profile? (Sergey Brin does have one, under a pseudonym that unmistakably points to its owner.)

But Googlers working on Emerald Sea note that the company has a lot advantages to play on the fields of social networking. Hundreds of millions of users, the vast majority of whom trust the company. Unparalleled mastery of determining relevant information. A vault filled with cash, to buy small companies (Aardvark, Picnik, Slide) that have gained a foothold in a given social activity.