15 February 2011

What I expect from Google Me (3)

The feature set

  • Complex filters: like Gmail enhanced filters in email and introduced more flexible labels, Me could hugely improve organization in the stream by offering customizable filters and the ability to save them as custom views. Even the current filters in Facebook do a great job at surfacing content that would otherwise be lost in a sea of updates about apps and new connections. It would be even better to create your own filters and add them to a sidebar, like labels in Gmail. Every time you click the ‘label’, you see only those updates; for example links from your ‘outer circle’, photos from a particular group or list of groups, new contacts and events in your professional network, books your close friends are reading; and the list can go on forever. And a final twist: offer the option to choose one of the filters – either built-in or custom – as the starting screen whenever you log in; maybe even a different one based on whether you are using it on the desktop or mobile.

  • Alerts: if filters can help organize large amounts of updates, alerts would be more specific, suited for rarer events that you don’t want to miss. Like when your sister gives birth and a family member posts about it; or when a friend moves to another city; or when somebody starts reading a book you also read, to give you a chance to discuss it with them. You could define alerts targeted at specific people or – more general – sources of content, with certain words or update types. Or set an alert for a single update, without publicly liking or commenting on it; since this could be a frequent activity it would be nice to have it as a single-click action, starring the update for example. As I read recently, there are already a number of start-ups offering social alerts. Both filters and alerts could be great use cases for the extensive social search mentioned in the first part.

  • Private messaging: this could be one of the key features, provided it’s done right. Even with a carefully maintained circle of close friends, some conversations must remain closed rather than open to the entire group. To give one simple example: deciding what to gift a friend for his birthday. Facebook is already on the job with their New Messages, but frankly I’m not that impressed by it. I’ve been a great fan of Google Wave, but maybe it’s a little too complex to appeal to the majority. It could be suited for a social network as long as it removes the ability to edit other people’s messages – that could generate a lot of confusion and hamper acceptance. Probably Buzz it closest right now, it just needs a more straight-forward way to post privately to a small number of people.

  • Groups: I personally like the idea of open groups introduced by Facebook that basically build themselves as more and more people are invited or ask to join. You can build topic-based groups without much effort this way and discover many interesting people. Or you can rebuild connections with high-school colleagues without actually adding them as friends. But I think the privacy needs improvement. First of all no adding of people to groups without their consent. And groups should be treated like persons: you can subscribe to open groups and place them in your outer circle; the updates will be subjected to the rules defined here. At the same time – or later – you decide the privacy level applied to other group members; they could see your profile as ‘outer circle’ for the most basic information or as middle, with more detail. But groups should also be a key part of the social experience in the inner circle. Here the system should automatically create small private groups based on the people you contact more often and let them reuse them easily; maybe even add filters for them and show all the interactions with that group of people in a unified view. This is what I think the rumored ‘loop’ in Google Me should be like.

  • Easy migration tools from other providers: if Facebook explains people how to export contacts from other services and manually import them into Facebook, shouldn’t Google do the same with the profile data that can now be exported from Facebook in a zip file?

  • Tight email integration: for the people who don’t want to sign up for yet another service, send notifications when I post something and allow them to comment by replying to those e-mails. It’s probably only feasible for the inner circle and/or private messages, but this should help members connect with more friends, strengthening their loyalty to the network.

  • More versatile status updates. I would like to see for example my calendar application automatically setting my status to the current event I’m attending for the inner circle and to ‘busy’ for the rest and also clearing the status once it’s complete. Or have the ability to ‘pin’ an important update on the top of my stream and on my profile – for example a photo album or an upcoming concert. The pinned update(s) should also feature on the mini-profile shown for my name on hover – that’s more useful than showing a couple of friends.

  • Contacts sync and sharing: one of benefits of social connections is that your contacts are always up-to-date, since everyone is managing their own information, which is instantly available to all connections. Not only does it save you a lot of time, but an address tied to the extra information on a profile makes you more confident the message actually reaches the intended recipient. Not only once I sent email to the wrong people because I assumed they were my friends based solely on their name. And some people also emailed me thinking I was somebody else; only after a couple of messages they discovered I was from the wrong city... Another feature I would like to see is contact sharing: when a friend needs to contact someone I know, simply let me share that contact with my friend, so that he sees all the details I have access to. That could be a great tool especially for professional recommendations.

  • Better integration between existing services: for example mash up Maps, Photos and Calendar to create an interactive map with the places you visited, the photos and events and status updates posted at the same time as the photos were taken. Allow friends to see it as a rich slideshow, and also display which other friends visited the same spots and when. Or better yet, generate such rich maps from a customizable list of people, for example the list of friends who just spent a weekend in the mountains – and automatically place pictures with no location data on the map based on the location of other photos with close time stamps. It won’t be perfect, but it would be a much better digital replica of the real trip than just a static photo album. Or something like this!

  • Seamless subscribing to a variety of sources, transformed into viable objects in the graph just like people: to web pages through RSS feeds – so no need to setup a separate Page like on Facebook, to new comments on blog posts you followed, YouTube channels, Twitter accounts and lists. Basically the equivalent of FriendFeed’s feature, ‘virtual friends’.

  • Automatic face tagging: a controversial subject for Facebook, but I think easily solved by allowing people to approve tags before anyone else sees them. The recognition algorithm – Picasa already has a pretty good one – should run on newly uploaded pictures and notify you when it finds a possible match. And you would ideally have three choices: yes, as in: this is me and it’s OK to tag the photo with my profile and show it according to the privacy settings defined for photo tags; no, obviously when the algorithm makes an error, and yes, this is me, but don’t show this photo to anyone else. With this extra option you are instructing the algorithm it has correctly recognized your face, to help it learn and improve further, but also protect your privacy; the tag is only visible to you and no one would be able to tag your name manually afterwards.

  • Games and Apps would probably fit in best with the Chrome Web Store – since you can already log in with a Google account it shouldn’t be hard to add your friends to the mix – but that would severely hamper adoption at the start. Maybe when the apps will be compatible with more browsers this could become the discovery and distribution method of choice.

As for social, I expect that Google will find greater success with their self-driving car and moon landing initiatives. Paul Buchheit

To conclude this already large article, I should mention I was planning it since almost six months, before the so-called details of Google’s actual plans started to appear on the Internet, like the ‘social layer’ over existing services and the alleged names (Emerald City, +1, Loop). I am somewhat disappointed in these reports; if these are Google’s plans to compete with Facebook, I don’t see them making a difference in the social networking area. Besides, the hype before the actual product launch can easily turn into disappointment, just as for Google Wave. Maybe Facebook will slowly implement some of these features, like they are doing with more prominent filters, public groups and messaging. Maybe the future is a multitude of online personas and networks that focus on one aspect and refine it to near-perfection. But even if these ideas will never see the light of day, I would be happy just to see social search done right. We’ll just have to wait and see.


  1. hopefully Google reads this.

    some good points, especially about layers of privacy (as you say, Google Buzz does a good job already) and the mess that the Facebook news feed is (a lot of my closest friends don't do many updates, and I miss them).

  2. Your ideas are pretty straight forward and practical in my opinion. I also think the contact issues, such as small circle of family/friends etc could be easily put in place by utilizing and refashioning google's existing 'contacts' and making these contacts more consistent and avalilable throughout all services. Through the contact manager we could establish what kind of information people have access to or not, we could preselect which particular group(s) we are communicating with, etc.

  3. Thanks for the feedback, Dave and Tom!
    I was going for that: "practical", as in features built for the users and not for monetization.