Google Friend Connect, social web tools worth another look

While Facebook captures the hearts and minds of many internet navigators (around 600 million users as of January 2011), Google has been been working on its version of the social web, releasing a myriad of services which facilitate social interaction on the web. Some, such as buzz, were ill-conceived and justly lambasted on their release. Yet others, like Google Friend Connect (GFC), probably haven’t gotten the attention they deserve. Google’s Friend Connect offers a broad set of basic functionality to support the creation and nurturing of a website community.

Google Friend Connect Logo Google Friend Connect TeamThe team. From left: Dan Koulomzin, Eric Nielsen, Chris Wren (front), Igor Malioutov, Josh Marantz (way back, climbing on something), Jason Wilson, Alison Cichowlas, James Reilly, Sami Shalabi (arms folded), Geoff Borggaard, Mussie Shore. (Photo by Robert Buderi, used with permission) In 1943 Maslow proposed a hierarchy of needs which motivate human behavior. Google Friend Connect provides building blocks which enable a site to gratify many of these needs. Display of community members affirms a visitor is in the right place and extensions like recent visitors provide desired recognition to those on a return visit, even when just lurking. Site discovery mechanisms allow folks to find sites based on member affinities. Some Friend Connect features, such as polls, can provide a quick and dirty way for sites to better understand their audience.

Sites looking to add a dash of social without major development expense or those looking for a replacement for Yahoo!’s late (shut down on 24 May 2011) may find Google Friend Connect to be just the right solution.

Google Friend Connect, what is it?

On its preview release in May 2008, Google said,

any website owner can add a snippet of code to his or her site and get social features up and running immediately without programming – picking and choosing from built-in functionality like user registration, invitations, members gallery, message posting, and reviews, as well as third-party applications built by the OpenSocial developer community.
Visitors to any site using Google Friend Connect [are] able to see, invite, and interact with new friends, or, using secure authorization APIs, with existing friends from social sites on the web…

Google Friend Connect was born out of an idea hatched by friends Sami Shalabi and Mussie Shore while working at Google’s Kendall Sq. Massachusetts office (think MIT). The two had previously founded Zingku, acquired by Google in 2007.

Rapid initial GFC development

In the months following the official release in December 2008, Google Friend Connect support was extended to 48 languages, integration with major CMS platforms (including WordPress, Joomla and Drupal) was rolled out and a slew of official and third party “gadgets” were released to extend Friend Connect’s functionality. By December 2009, Google said Friend Connect was running on 9 million sites, up from 5 million in July, no doubt in part due to its availability on Google’s own blogger sites.

Friend Connect features – gadget overview

Friend Connect feature functionality is provided through extensions, called gadgets. Google has authored more than 10 of them as well as featuring others from third party developers. The principal Friend Connect gadgets follow. In some cases functionality and usage are highlighted in a video.

ActivitiesDisplay your website’s most recent Friend Connect activity (e.g. comments, reviews).Google
ClackPointAdd real-time text, audio and video communicationVoxeo
CommentsLet users post comments and video links. Posts can apply to a specific page or an entire website.VideoGoogle
EventsUse this gadget to promote an event to your community. Members of your site can get details about the event (including images and video), see a map, indicate whether they will attend, and see who else has responded. Events can be added to a member’s Google Calendar with a single click.VideoGoogle
Featured contentDisplay content from your site based on the interests of your site’s visitors. Using Google site search, this gadget will automatically display content that matches the interests expressed by your site’s visitors.VideoGoogle

Get Answers

(Questions and Answers Gadget)

Encourage visitors to ask questions of the community and answer questions posed by othersBarry Welch
Interests pollAsk your visitors questions relevant to your site via a poll that adds to their profile. Answers can enhance AdSense and the featured content gadget. This gadget works in concert with the Interests feature.VideoGoogle
MembersLet users join your site, create profiles, find other users, and invite friends to join.VideoGoogle
Newsletter subscriptionHelp members sign up for your newsletter by providing their email address if they haven’t yet specified one.VideoGoogle
PollsPolls Gadget makes it easy to publish opinion polls on your friend connected website and adds a social element by displaying the faces of the community members and friends who voted on each answer.Alex Epshteyn
Ratings and reviewsLet users rate and review content on your page — books, photos, songs, etc.Google
Recent visitorssee which of your members have recently visited your site by displaying up to 10Karthik
RecommendationLet users recommend their favorite pages, surfacing your site’s most popular content.VideoGoogle
Sign InA smaller version of the Members gadget that lets users join your site and invite friends.Google
Social barLet users sign in, view other members, leave comments, and see recent site activity from the top or bottom of your website.VideoGoogle

The Google Friend Connect social infrastructure

Google Friend Connect provides a social infrastructure platform which provides three basic elements:

  • Identity. Allows users to create, modify and delete their personal profiles
  • mapping. Allows users to connect to other users. GFC supports symmetric friendships. Each friend must approve the friendship.
  • Content. Allows users to add personal content, such as comments on sites, articles, or survey responses.

Google Friend Connect Milestones

2008-05-12Google introduces Friend Connect in limited beta
2008-12-04Google Friend Connect is available to everyone
2009-02-11Social bar launched to better display and access Friend Connect features. Includes a site’s activity stream; can host discussion on a page or the site. Displays members & friends.
2009-02-26Friend Connect integrated with Google’s Blogger
2009-03-12Programmer API introduced
2009-03-20Improved help forum launched to augment official help center
2009-04-16Google Calendar integration available
2009-04-21Poll Gadget introduced
2009-04-22Community Q & A forum “Get Answers” gadget released
2009-05-07Google Translation added to commenting gadget
2009-05-14Recommendations gadget introduced
2009-05-21Netlog adds Friend Connect integration
2009-05-28Friend Connect joins Google Web Elements with the Conversation element
2009-06-04OpenSocial Specification v0.9 supported
2009-06-25MyBlogLog like Footprints gadget introduced to display up to 10 recent site visitors
2009-07-14Friend Connect goes îñţérñåţîöñåļ – 48 languages supported
2009-09-03Friend Connect now available for Elgg
2009-10-02No longer necessary to upload files for installation
2009-10-22Friend Connect plugin now available for WordPress. Enables social bar,
2009-10-27Friend Connect now available for Discuz!
2009-11-04new “Interests” section, private messaging, Send custom newsletters, Add Google Ads
2009-12-02Log in with twitter supported
2010-01-11Friend Connect now available for Drupal and Joomla
2011-01-28User help forum closed.
2011-11-22Google announces planned shutdown of Google Friend Connect on March 1, 2012.

Facebook says no to Google Friend Connect

Initially Google Friend Connect allowed users to find their Friends on Facebook and invite them to Google Friend Connect using Facebook’s developer API. Facebook was not going to have any of this and promptly disconnected GFC under the guise of privacy, rather unconvincing since while Facebook may be known for a lot of great things, protecting user privacy is not one of them (think beacon to start with). The Friend Connect team responded, to no avail.

Practical considerations

Those looking for a rich feature set may find GFC gadgets wanting. As an example, the comment module doesn’t support threaded comments (replies).

As with all cloud based services, sites will want to insure they back up any valuable GFC data – Google could shut GFC down at some date in the future (Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! have all shutdown web services in the past).

SEO issues

Google Friend Connect usage can conflict with some SEO best practices. Again take the commenting functionality as an example: it is really better for sites to host content on their own domain rather than on someone else’s.

Some non-Google authored Gadgets are hosted on non-Google websites. Should those sites be down, the gadget won’t load. This is generally not a problem for Google hosted gadgets as Google’s infrastructure is rather robust. There is also a potential risk should the site hosting the gadget change ownership… the gadget could disappear or be replaced with something “dishonorable”. It may thus make sense to self-host the gadget xml description file, which should improve gadget load speed too. Page load speed, a weak SEO ranking factor, isn’t really a big consideration as GFC does specify gadget sizes, allowing the rest of a page to load regardless of the gadget load state. The one downside to local xml hosting is that the xml file will need to be manually updated in order to take advantage of any future enhancements.

Uncertainty: Google Friend Connect from 2010 to today

In 2010 Friend Connect development stalled, at least judging by a lack of new features; program manager Shore & tech lead manager Shalabi appear to changed their focus to Google Buzz. The GFC user help forum was closed although a developer forum is still active.

When Google CEO Larry Page tied 2011 bonuses to social strategy success, it became clear that Google management is aware of deficiencies in their current social strategies.

Google Friend Connect, a MyBlogLog replacement?

Yahoo’s MyBlogLog provided basic social network community membership features to websites before Yahoo! shut it down on May 24, 2011. A widget placed in website pages allowed visitors to join the site’s community, view profiles of other site members and see recent site visitors. Google Friend Connect offers a valid alternative, especially when combined with its Recent visitors gadget.

Next steps

The actually time need to install basic GFC functionality on a site is minimal, so go ahead, give it a try! And since social communities need a critical mass before full benefits can accrue, join the Antezeta community today!

Google Friend Connect technical aspects

The following technical information may prove useful to site developers.

Sign-on authentication and friend discovery options

Google Friend Connected launched with support to log on and discover contacts using AOL, Google, OpenID or Yahoo! credentials. Twitter integration was added at the end of 2009. The problem with this type of integration is that if users access GFC with different credentials at a different moment in time, the user essentially creates a separate, duplicate, GFC profile. Another problem arises should AOL or Yahoo login systems be down, a user who chose to use AOL or Yahoo! credentials won’t be able to log on to GFC either.

Open standards support

From the very beginning Google touted Friend Connect’s support of open standards OpenSocial,OpenID and Oauth. In March 2009 Google added a programmer API.

Friend Connect integration with CMS & other platforms

PlatformDate LaunchedNotes
WordPress2009-10-22WordPress users should probably use native comments. They may also want to consider WordPress’ social version, BuddyPress.

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About Sean Carlos

Sean Carlos is a digital marketing consultant & teacher, assisting companies with their Search (SEO + SEA = SEM), Social Media & Digital Media Analytics strategies. Sean first worked with text indexing in 1990 in a project for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Since then he worked for Hewlett-Packard Consulting and later as IT Manager of a real estate website before founding Antezeta in 2006. Sean is an official instructor of the Digital Analytics Association and collaborates with the Bocconi University. He is Chairman of the SMX Search and Social Media Conference, 12 & 13 November in Milan. He is also a co-author of the Treccani encyclopedic dictionary of computer science, ICT & digital media. Born in Providence, RI, USA, Sean received Honors in Physics from Bates College, Maine. He speaks English, Italian and German.

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