Google Beat Facebook to the Punch, But Wouldn't Commit to Social Networks

James Logie

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It turns out that being first isn't always that important.

Companies like Apple have built a lot of their success not on being first, but by coming in and finding a better way to do it.

When it comes to social networking sites, Facebook also was far from first. Other sites such as Friendster, Six Degrees, and MySpace all predate Mark Zuckerberg's creation.

Then there was Orkut.

This is a look at how Google actually was at the forefront of social networking but came up short.

Google Has Been More Than Google+

Google+ is often what we associate the company with as far as social networking. But the search giant has been part of the social networking scene since the early days.

In the great book “In the Plex” by Steven Levy, we see how Google had been present at the birth of social networking.

The year was 2002, the Winter Olympics were taking place in Salt Lake City — “Spiderman” and “Ice Age” came out in theatres.

This was also an interesting year when it comes to the internet. The dot.com bubble had reached the inevitable bottom as the Dow had sunk below 7,200.

But internet companies were still pushing forward.

A young Google engineer named Orkut Buyukkokten saw what was possible with the internet.

believed that all internet users could be connected so they could share ideas and build strong connections with one another.

Buyukkokten had come to the US from Turkey. He attended Stanford before joining Google.

Google was growing quickly and the staff was allowed to spend 20% of their time on any creative projects.

The project he worked on was a “cyberspace preserve” where people could connect and intermingle in peace.

It was based on the popular site Friendster. Users would build a profile and then be able to connect with others when approved.

The idea was to create an online utopia where users could share peace and build meaningful connections.

He took it to some higher-ups who loved the idea of Google having their own social network.

Becoming Orkut.com

To reflect the peaceful intentions of his network, Buyukkokten wanted to call the site Eden. But eden.com was already taken.

Google thought that it should be named after him and Orkut.com was born.

You may wonder why the name had no mention of Google at all. The company wanted to see if the social network could “stand on its own two feet.”

Orkut came out of the gates pretty hot. To use it, you had to be invited and this made it feel more exclusive.

The main users at first were the thousands of employees of Google who all invited their friends and family to join the social network.

In the first month, hundreds of thousands of people would join. There were so many users that Google made the engineers check the stats to make sure it wasn’t an error.

Orkut was so big that Google had to take it down for a couple of days because their system couldn’t handle it.

The first main users were in the U.S., and the next biggest country of users was Japan with 8%. Google didn’t want to tinker much with the site and decided to sit back and observe.

The Growth of Orkut

The site was growing like wildfire, but Google’s resistance to adapt and tweak it was causing issues.

The system — still having trouble from the overload of users — sputtered. Impatient users jumped ship.

Google was big into quick launches, and Orkut was no exception. The problem was, Google didn’t seem to know what it had on its hands.

Facebook wasn’t a thing yet, so no one really knew how powerful a social network could become.

Google had the opportunity to dominate social networking — they just didn’t realize it.

Their philosophy was to let the systems prove themselves. They had let Buyukkokten build the project without knowing if it was any good.

It turns out that it was, as was the concept of a social network.

Google had waited to see if it would crash from overuse. When it inevitably did, they finally brought in other programmers to tighten everything up. But it was too late.

How Did Orkut Evolve With the Rise of Facebook?

Here’s the thing: despite many in the U.S. abandoning the site, Orkut became a massive hit in countries like Brazil and India.

Orkut became part of daily life for many Brazilians. There was no rhyme or reason why it caught on in these other countries.

One theory is that these places were used to poor internet connections and were more willing to wait out site glitches.

Americans left at the first sign of site instability.

Another idea was that the different time zones helped the site speed. Since these countries were in an opposite time zone to the U.S., there was less load on the servers.

Orkut was so big in India that it was the primary Google product ahead of Gmail and even search.

But a new social networking site created by a Harvard student had sprung up.

The Demise of Orkut

Facebook soon became the social network of choice not just in North America, but India and Brazil, too.

So why didn’t Google make Orkut more of a priority? The problem was that only around 2% of the users were American.

Half of the users were from Brazil and about 40% were from India.

Despite its astonishing early success, Orkut just wasn’t a priority. Google was still relatively small and a social networking site required a specific amount of attention and engineers who were needed for other projects.

It turns out that Google hadn’t put the right balance between Orkut and other projects.

In fairness, there was no way to tell what social networks could become — but they did have some early warning signs with Orkut’s immediate success.

Orkut continued to be used in countries like Brazil, but on September 20, 2014, it would finally be closed.

Key Takeaways

Despite the early success of Orkut, Google just didn’t seem interested in social networks.

Most start-ups would kill to have a launch like Orkut, but there was just too much going on at Google at the time.

This was during the early days of the company when they were throwing quite a lot at the wall to see what would stick.

They were acquiring companies left and right and creating many new products.

They even bought a small company called “Dodgeball” that lets mobile phone users turn their city into a huge game of hide-and-seek.

Dodgeball had an interesting feature called “shout.” This allowed users to send short, location-based messages to friends.

But like Orkut, Google didn’t pay much attention to this company and it failed to grow.

The founder of Dodgeball — Dennis Crowley — was one of the first to see an early version of Twitter.

Crowley tried to give Google a heads up on the importance of social apps such as this — but they just weren’t listening.

Google officially cut ties with Dodgeball, but a few years later, location-based apps became hot.

A new one created by Crowley used the same location technology from Dodgeball. It was called Foursquare.

Ultimately, Orkut didn’t work because Google was more focused on data and algorithms than personal recommendations and interactions. These two things are at the heart of social networking.

Despite the amount of time we spend online, the human connection behind it is still critical.

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.

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