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

11/3/09Follow @bbuderi

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pull in your friends to your new site, publish activities, and even do direct messaging back to the social networks. (“Facebook is not open in this regard yet. But we believe that at some point they will be,” says Shore). The “members gadget” installed on each GFC-friendly site is the core of Google Friend Connect. Other gadgets make it easy for the users to leave ratings, reviews, and comments and generally take part in the community on each site. “There’s a whole series of gadgets that help with that,” says Shalabi.

This is much like you’ll find on a social networking site such as Facebook, but the trick is you don’t have to do it anew for each site you join—and it is available to millions of websites, not just one. “It’s allowing you to add social functionality to any website,” says Shalabi. “Social isn’t just a destination, it’s everywhere.”

The public beta of Google Friend Connect debuted last December. And this April, Google really threw its weight behind the product by integrating it with Blogger, its free blog publishing system on which millions of blogs have been built. Every new blog created on Blogger now comes with the Google Friend Connect member’s gadget turned on by default. That, says Shalabi, has resulted in a “huge amount of traffic” for GFC.

I won’t try to capture all the developments since then. Suffice it to say that the team has increased the number of gadgets available. They have also built plug-ins to make it easier to add GFC’s social features to platforms such as WordPress and Drupal. GFC is now localized into something like 56 languages. And Google has opened the API (Application Programming Interface) to outside developers so that they can add features to GFC. The team, meanwhile, has expanded to 11 strong—10 engineers with Shalabi as tech lead manager, plus Shore as the product manager.

I also won’t try to run you through exactly how it all works. But I will say that after leaving the Plex, I tried out GFC both as a site visitor and a site owner, and it performed as advertised: two clicks to upload my personal profile and a paltry few questions before it was time to click the “generate code” button, which rendered the aforementioned code and this message: “copy and paste this code into your website where you’d like this gadget to appear.” Here’s a video about it:

“Eight million communities have formed with Friend Connect,” says Shore. Lots of them only have a small number of members. However, he says, smaller communities often “have the most potent exchanges.” And no matter what the membership size, if users are exchange valuable comments and information, “to me that means that content is being added to the web that otherwise wouldn’t have been there, and that’s more valuable to everyone.”

But how is it more valuable to Google? (I told you I’d get to this). I asked Shalabi about the business model, and got back a nice smile. “The economics of this are a little interesting,” is how he put it, which I took to mean either that he wasn’t exactly sure or that he wasn’t ready to talk about it. But a key thing about working at Google, he says, is that the goal is keeping Web users happy. “Our goal as a product team is to make our users the happiest users in the world. And if they’re happy, they’re on the Internet longer—and the economics just work for Google.”

[Update, 11/4/09, 10:20 a.m.]

Google today announced it is launching a series of new features for Google Friend Connect that enable site owners to make it easier for their “like-minded” visitors to find each other and share what matters to them. At the same time, the new features reportedly give site owners a better view of the most popular aspects of their sites and give them ways to serve more personalized ads and add other enhancements.

These include personalized content gadgets, integration of Friend Connect with Google AdSense, and deeper API support so that outside developers can add even more features to GFC. Here’s a new video that explains more.

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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