Everyone's following Facebook these days, even down to its missteps.

Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) has opened a can of worms with a viral feature in its Google Reader application that's proving to be more of a public relations nightmare than an enhancement.

Google Reader is the company's free Web-based application that alerts users to updates on their favorite blogs and websites. Two weeks ago, it rolled out a new feature that tips off everyone in a user's Google Talk and Gmail contact lists whenever a blog update is tagged as shareable.

In short, all of your contacts may soon discover that you have a thing for lawn gnomes, Dr. Phil, or sappy telenovelas.  

It's a blunder, and even as Google is scrambling to tweak the offering, the hornet's nest has already been whacked with a pinata bat.

Here's a sampling of some of the more colorful headlines:

  • Google stands firm on Reader sharing as users' ire grows (Computerworld)
  • Google Reader invades your privacy and it's not going to stop (Guardian UK)
  • Christmas of controversy for Google Reader team (Ars Technica).

The backlash is all too familiar to those in the Facebook war room. After all, it's the fast-growing social network that seems to run afoul of privacy advocates from time to time. Whether it's alerting "friends" to profile preference changes or even the products that you consume, Facebook's attempts to cash in on social advertising have been controversial.

Facebook is a company worth emulating -- from time to time. It became a social networking trendsetter earlier this year when it opened its platform to third-party widgets. It wasn't long before juggernauts like Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), and Washington Post (NYSE:WPO) hopped on the bandwagon, making Facebook more relevant in the corporate space that finally found a Web 2.0 meal ticket in viral monetization if their apps prove sticky.

Facebook's brazenness is to be expected. It's young and cocky and willing to swing for the fences as a private company. Google is too big, and way too public, to take the same kind of chances. A blunder can be a blowout, with billions in market cap in the balance. The Google Reader flap isn't anywhere near that kind of brand-tarnishing fiasco, but it sets an ominous precedent. The media will now be chomping at the bit to see the next time that Google lacks the vision to miss the obvious backlash.

Like a burned Google Reader user, Google's actions are there for all to see. Since Google doesn't have the luxury of opting out of that kind of feature, it had better make sure it steers far away from anything with a whiff of nefariousness in the future.  

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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz wonders if loners embrace social networking. He does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy that sings like a bird.