Google Friend Connect – first (premature) thoughts

My thoughts are premature, because I haven’t actually seen Google Friend Connect (GFC; can I call it GFC?) in action, I’ve only seen the few screenshots that google has released. That being said, I thought I’d respond to my impressions or understandings of the service, before seeing what it really is. That way if I’m wrong, I can claim ignorance 🙂

In a press release, it was stated that “Google Friend Connect is about helping the ‘long tail’ of sites become more social.” The idea was that “without requiring coding experience”, GFC (geez, I’m totally hurting my search engine ranking by not spelling that out) would provide site maintainers with a way to tap into the benefits of social networks, attracting and engaging more visitors.

As a developer, implementation is always in my mind. I’m interested in how a series of widgets or wizards magically add “social” to your site. When you’re working on a specific platform (say, facebook or myspace), you can tap into a known architecture and codebase to aid in the integration. (facebook apps, wordpress plugins). When you’re not, well, is it really an integrated solution?

Pluck already does a good job at offering blogs, forums and other social goodies to sites, either via javascript or an API. People have long been able to add polls and forums to their sites via services like bravenet or dreambook (remember when it was all the rage to have a guestbook? Now THAT was engagement!) The functionality may be the basically the same, so what’s the big draw?

It’s the data. Isn’t everything about the data these days? Pluck or any other third-party hosted widget has the data living… somewhere. To a user, it may seem like that blog post or poll is on your site, but if it’s being pulled in using javascript, the good ole Google crawler isn’t going to associate it with your site.

Hm… the google crawler… may not index all the information associated with your site (blog postings, reviews, comments) if it’s hosted by a third party social site, if it gets pulled in dynamically.. but what if google DID? What if google provided the hooks into the social stuff? I will definitely be interested to see if they’ve figured this piece of it out. They wrote the rules, so it will be interesting to see if they get re-written.

Update: an article on ReadWriteWeb states that the social magic will be added in via iframe.. so much for my high hopes of making the social in your site actually seem like your site. I thought we’d all communally agreed back about 5 years ago that iframes were evil? 🙁

The other consideration about data is related to personal data. Right now a site implementing third-party software retains control of the data. A site integrating a third party product may or may not have the same control. It appears that one limitation with MySpace’s Data Availability initiative is that MySpace retains the control over the data is makes available. If a site implements GFC, can the user hook into one or more existing social networks, and how are any actions taking place on the host site being tracked? I think of Disqus, which centralizes blog comments. When I respond (after having authenticated) to a blog posting where the author has set up disqus, my comments are stored as part of my disqus profile. Disqus purports to “makes your comments more interactive for readers and easier to manage for you — all while connecting your community with other blogs.” – but it does this largely on its own domain. Will google.com/friendconnect serve as a landing pad for user behaviours online? Currently it appears that that is what is the distinguishing feature between Google’s *connect feature, as opposed to the recent offerings by Facebook and MySpace.
Another consideration with the lack of an existing primary platform is how conflicting information will be resolved. I will admit that I don’t yet have a clear understanding how GFC will tie into the authentication of other sites, if a user will be able to select one platform with which to associate (and from which his friends and preferences will migrate), or if he will be able to pick and choose. Just two days ago there was an article in ReadWriteWeb stating that filtering is the next step for social media. We are at a breaking point with too much duplicating information out there, and now we need to do through the tedious work to de-dupe and validate. I don’t have a clear sense what the GFC strategy is for assigning friends to groups with varying levels of privileges, and how referential integrity across platforms may be ensured (if Melissa de-friends iKeif on facebook, what happens to his access to her data on my site?)

I will be very interested to see how this all plays out.. I’ll be eager to read the full reports from the few whitelisted sites that will be trying things out.

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