The Story of Google Friend Connect: Google Cambridge’s First Wholly Home-Grown Product

11/3/09Follow @bbuderi

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coming into the Google fold that Shalabi and Shore hit on idea for what became Google Friend Connect.

“We were really dabbling, trying to figure out how we fit…and how to contribute to Google,” Shalabi says. Initially, he and Shore figured they would work on mobile products for Google. But they saw such work as incremental for both Google and themselves. So Shalabi recalls the pair reframing their thinking along these lines: “‘We’re at Google. Can we do things here that we’d never have been able to do as a startup?’ That’s when we were able to step back and say, ‘Let’s dream as big as we can.’”

As Shore explains it, their big realization was that most website owners—the ones who don’t have the expertise or resources to install fancy social networking features—have little idea who is on their site at a given time, what their users really like, what other sites they visit, and so on. If he and Shalabi could make the keys to that knowledge freely available, so that site owners could easily “turn the lights on the community that’s already visiting their sites,” that would be something the owners would really welcome.

With Shalabi doing the programming and Shore the product management and design, they decided to give it a shot. “Google is a culture which likes to really reward delivery,” says Shalabi. He calls it “rapid-fire, iterative development.” You put concepts out there, see what works and what doesn’t, you learn and try again—but if things look good, the company will step in with more resources.

“Our style is to fail fast, just get the stuff out there,” adds Shore.

In the case of GFC, they got a working prototype ready within weeks. By early 2008, Google assigned three more engineers to the effort. The team put out the private beta release that May and began working with site owners, bloggers, and others Google partners to try out new ideas. Shalabi says they had two goals. “One, we were trying to figure out if this was something people wanted. Two, if this was something that had value.”

Their conclusion, of course, would be yes on both counts. But early on it became apparent that one of their core premises—that people wanted to bring their friends with them to new sites—was wrong. “Initially, we had the thesis that you traveled the Web with your friends, and what we later discovered was it wasn’t really like that. It’s really about engaging with like-minded strangers,” Shalabi says. For instance, if you are a Formula 1 lover, it doesn’t mean all your friends are, he says. So rather than try to drag them to a Formula 1 enthusiasts’ site, what you really want to do is share your enthusiasm with others as passionate as you.

Until that point, they had focused on things like linking to users’ social networks so that their friends would know when they visited a new site. But, says Shalabi, “we discovered that wasn’t as relevant as saying something about yourself” to the community already on the site. So they retooled to pull in the user’s own personal profile and make it easy for GFC users to “declare themselves with a single click.”

Today, if you join a site with Google Friend Connect, your bio, photo, and any other profile details you’ve added are uploaded with a click from your Google, AIM, Yahoo, Netlog (it’s big in Europe), or OpenID account. You can later link your social networks such as Twitter, Orkut, and others to your login identity—and thereby … Next Page »

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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