The timing couldn't be worse. Yesterday, The Big G agreed to settle with the Federal Trade Commission charges that it violated users' privacy when it introduced its Buzz social network last year. The price? Twenty years of privacy audits and up to $16,000 in fines.
Never before has the FTC forced a company to implement a specific privacy program, but given the rise of social media, it's unlikely to be the last time we see the feds cracking down. Buzz still exists on the web but in a more moderated form. Nor has Google given up on the idea of social media ... which brings us back to +1.
The idea's simple. When you find something you really like during a search, click the +1 button to signal its worthiness to friends you're connected to via your Google profile, which is created through a Byzantine maze of squishy relationships.
And that, Fool, is the problem.
In my case, connections I have on Twitter factor into my social sphere because I'll sometimes post to Twitter and Buzz at the same time. Google assumes I want these people in the social sphere it's defined for me.
More intriguing (annoying?) is that people I follow and who follow me on the Q&A network Quora are also in my social sphere. I'm not as sure what happened here. Best as I can figure it, when I added the Quora extension in Google Chrome I granted The Big G access to all my contacts.
Privacy issues notwithstanding, what this means is Google may not have an interest in creating a social network. Instead, it wants to aggregate and use data from all the social networks I already belong to create a big circle of (ahem) "friends" who see my preferences every time I click +1. It's ingenious, if a little sneaky.
Where Google's rumored Circles social network would fit into all this is unclear. What is clear is that the feds are watching, as are Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) , which has experimented with social search in Bing, and Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO ) , which included a tab for social content streaming in the new Y! Mail. At least two of these three have a lot to lose if Facebook continues to dominate social search as it has. (Mr. Softy owns a slice of The Social Network.)
Do you agree? Disagree? Let us know what you think about Google's strategy with +1, social search, and Facebook's competitive positioning using the comments box below.