How Google's Strategy for the Real-Time Web and Social Network Will Effect Education

I am a school librarian, not a Silicon Valley analyst. I endeavor in this post to give a logical, unbiased view of Google’s strategy in both the real-time web, primarily through Google Docs and Wave, and social networking, primarily through Google Buzz, to determine the viability of the tools for my students. In the interest of full disclosure, I use Gmail, Google Reader, Google Chrome, Google Calendar, and Google Docs on an almost-daily basis. I also have concerns about how much information Google has about its users and what it plans to do with that information long term. Regardless of my personal biases for and against, I try to give a balanced assessment.


Google is one of the biggest Internet companies around. Instead of resting on past laurels, they continue to innovate. While Google has been tremendously successful, its main business has been search and advertising. Search drives custom ads which are paid for on a per-click basis. It has found a great model for integrating this custom advertising model into nearly every facet of business.

Advertisements are a part of Gmail, the world’s third most popular email. Youtube and Google Video have been extremely monetized with custom pages for brands, ads on the site, and ads on the videos themselves. They have even developed their own advanced cell phone operating system called Android largely because it drives mobile search through Google, which allows them to show more ads, and ties users more fully to their Google accounts. They have a plan in place to put custom advertisements on pictures of billboards inside Google Earth. The entire immersive, useful experience from Google Reader, to Google Books, to Google Search, to Google Docs, to Google Wave, to Google Buzz, to Google Checkout, to Google Sites, to Google Earth, to Google Maps, to Google’s photo service Picasa, and every other Google service is designed to keep you using Google so you can click on more ads.

This is not a disparagement of Google. They have crafted some amazingly useful tools and supporting that with advertisements is a proven way to keep those tools free for end users. On the same token, it is wise to be aware of what you are who and who is keeping your information.

Despite how successful Google has been in so many areas, there are two areas specifically that Google is interested in breaking into in a big way: the real-time web and social networking. They are trying to get into these markets through both acquisitions and original products.

This is extremely important because Google’s business model needs to evolve as the way people use the Internet changes. The exponential rise of Twitter, Facebook, and similar networks is really changing the way people use the Internet. Teachers, for example, will often go on Twitter now and ask for a personalized recommendation from people whose opinion they respect as opposed to doing a Google search. Over 100 million people use Twitter and Facebook is closing in on 500 million. Facebook’s recent f8 conference just demonstrated a new feature called “Instant Personalization.” Sites like Pandora radio, Microsoft Docs (a competitor to Google Docs), and other partners will automatically have your Facebook information and be better able to serve advertisements. Facebook is implementing community pages where members of its gigantic user base can congregate around an idea (For example, a group of Tetris fans could have a dedicated community page to discuss all things Tetris) that is tailor made to service custom advertisements. Other sites will be able to add a Facebook “Like” button or allow people to sign in using their Facebook account.

Twitter, while not as massive as Facebook, presents another challenge. Twitter and similar services provide interaction in real-time. The recent 140 Conference in New York City demonstrated to what extent real-time searching is affecting nearly every industry from business, to fashion, to real estate, to news, to politics, to education, and so on. Twitter is changing the way people transmit and consume data.

If it is not readily apparently, this is a major, long-term threat to Google’s business. In the short term, the majority are still dependent on traditional searches. However, over the next several years, there is the potential for social searches to take a very large market share from Google’s traditional business. In short, these are just some of the challenges that Google wants to tackle. To borrow a turn of phrase from the stock market, Google has been diversifying its investments (I am speaking of investments as both acquisitions and products to which they are investing time, money, and energy) and needs to continue to do so effectively without also marginalizing its core strength.

Part 1: Play to your strengths

While Google has some excellent tools, the one that brought it to the table is Page Rank. Page Rank is Google’s system for determining the relevance of a website based on the number of other websites that link to it. This is simplified, but it is the basic idea. Google’s utilizes “spiders,” or computer programs that systematically crawl as much of the Internet as possible by exploring the links from one website to another. This is what allows it to find as many sites as it has. All search engines employ some method of crawling the Internet to find sources. As they all start at different points, there will be parts of the Internet that Google has found that Bing has not. Similarly, there will be sites online that Yahoo has found that perhaps Lycos has not. There is much overlap, but no one engine has mapped the entire Internet; it is an impossibility due to the ever growing nature of the web.

Google has brokered a deal with Twitter to gain access to every tweet as soon as it occurs. Google is not the only or even the best real-time search engine yet, but it hopes to become so by leveraging its large base of users. It also has access to some of Facebook’s public messages, but I am not sure to what extent.

When you do a search on Google, Google’s options will show on the left side of the page. One of the ways that you can filter your search results to get what you want more specifically, is to filter based on time. If you click “Latest,” you will see results in real-time. Literally, the results will stream down as you watch with the newest entries coming up top. These results include not only traditional news stories, but also posts from social networks. For example, this picture is from a search on Haiti. It shows a post from Twitter and a post from Facebook in the latest results.

What separates Google from some real-time search engines is how it combines traditional news sources, such as the New York Times, with social networks. There is room for improvement. It is hard to use Page Rank to determine the relevance of a Twitter post as very little will likely be linking to the Twitter post itself. I would hope that the results can be tailored more closely to what was searched for. I am not an engineer, so I cannot tell Google how to do so; I will say that I won’t use it heavily until the results become more reliable.

Technology often will hit the mainstream long before it comes to the education sector. It is because of this that I follow several mainstream technology blogs (In particular, I recommend Lifehacker, TechCrunch, Engadget, and jkOnTheRun.); I want to keep myself on the forefront as much as possible so I can find things to use with my students even before it becomes commonplace.

There are several ways that I can see real-time search being useful in education. In particular, anytime you can link something that is happening in the town, state, country, or world news with what is going on in your classroom, it can have great benefit. Especially for schools where Twitter is blocked, performing a real-time search allows students to get a varied selection of posts from both normal people and formal new agencies as an event occurs. A recent example could be the Iranian elections. Despite what the Iranian government was saying, a real-time search would have both demonstrated what news agencies were writing as well as the unrest of the local citizens.

Part 2: Build it or buy it

Google has historically been a very innovative company. While much of that innovation is done at Google (much has been made of their 80/20 policy), a lot of it comes from being able to identify and purchase innovative startups. For example, YouTube, Blogger, Picassa, and many other services were bought by Google. As long as the United States government approves it, Google is in the process of acquiring AdMob, which would make Google even more powerful in mobile advertising. Google has two real-time offerings: Google Docs and Google Wave. Both of these tools were built in-house by Google. Now, real-time fits in well with Google’s long standing philosophy of speed being one of the most important elements in a user’s experience online.

However, recognizing a competitor’s strength, Google purchased Etherpad to augment its real-time suite. Etherpad was a real-time collaboration platform. It let up to 8 people type on a document at one time. It color coded the authors for easy recognition and even had a video timeline of changes. No one needed to sign up for an account or provide an email address. Etherpad was extremely popular amongst teachers; the reaction was so strongly negative when Google bought it that Google released the code freely. The result is that there are many clones available online. Google integrated the minds behind Etherpad into its Google Wave team. It has yielded dividends, I believe, as Wave has improved greatly over the last year,

While Wave gets more publicity, Google Docs is the backbone of their current real-time strategy. Wave is in beta status and is still invite only (If you need an invite, let me know in the comments. I have about 20 left.). Google Docs is open for everyone. Google Docs consists of a word processor, a spreadsheet editor, a PowerPoint-like presentation editor, and a drawing tool. It is similar in nature to Microsoft Office; Google hopes to differentiate its brand with an emphasis on sharing and collaborating, which is much easier on their platform than on traditional desktop office suites.

Until recently, Google Docs was not real-time. It was very close, but there was a noticeable lag. Now, Google allows you to use their real-time text editor. Currently, it is only available for the Documents, not for Spreadsheets or Presentations. You also have to enable it under the Edit tab in the settings menu.

This is a big deal for education. Students can now work on writing assignments in an area they feel comfortable with. They don’t have to crowd around 1 computer. They can all work on their own computer, even if they are not physically present in the classroom, all collaborate in real-time. Real-time in this situation means that as one student is typing a word, a partner student can view that word come up letter by letter on another computer. Google has implemented a whole host of useful changes; you can view the whole list here.

Google Wave is a whole different animal all together. You cannot just start using Wave; you need to be invited. You can request an invite here or ask for one in the comments for faster results. Google Wave is not the easiest application to explain. The first time Google tried to answer the question, they responded with an 80-minute video which I embedded below. If you have time, it is worth a watch as their heart for the project and what they want it to evolve into becomes evident.

Basically, Google’s hope for Wave is that it completely changes how we communicate online and actually replaces email. Lofty goal? Absolutely, but no one can make great changes without confidence and high expectations. I am going to try to walk through a few of the features of Wave here, but the best way to learn about Wave is really to just jump in and use it. Before you start using Wave, though, realize that it is very much a beta release. The changes in Wave between now and a year ago are significant; the changes by next year will likely be more so. Google is keeping it invite only until they are confident the user experience is good enough for the normal user, not only the highly technologically inclined.

Here is a picture of what Wave looks like upon initial login. It can be a little daunting until you get used to the interface. In the top left, you have a navigation box with options somewhere between an email client and a browser. In the bottom left are your Wave contacts. This is one of the only Google applications where your Gogle Contacts do not transfer over. In the center, you have your inbox. Notice the box above the inbox says in:inbox. Learning Google’s operators here can make Wave much easier to work with. For example, typing with:public will give you a real-time list of every wave being worked on currently.

The hardest part about Wave for a long time was not just figuring out how to use it, but rather finding reasons to use it. Many people liked the technology but walked away because they did not see an immediate utility. Google has wisely implemented templates recently to help people to just start their waves. You can start a blank wave and set it up how you would like, or you can use one of the included templates. The options include brainstorming, discussion, task tracking, meeting, and document.

Once this is open to the public and the interface is a little easier to use, the implications for education are hard to ignore. Written in HTML5 and AJAX, Google Wave is completely real-time. You can write in draft mode so no one notices if you make a type, but that kind of defeats the point. People who are working as a team can edit, change, and improve each other’s work. This is a mindset that takes practice for students to appreciate and become good at, but it is worth it in the end.

Without even going into what we can do with blank waves, think of the utility of the templates. Group projects and papers should almost always start with some sort of brainstorming session. Wave could be a method to streamline that for some students and allow everyone to have an immediate record of what was discussed. When students are working in groups, there has to be a balance between group work and independent work done for the group. With the meeting template, everyone could meet online if they are not together, or keep a record of the meeting discussion easily and in a transparent manner. With discussion, and entire class or a group of students can pose questions to be answered in the discussion, which would create a master set of notes for everyone in the class. Task-tracking would be great for keeping groups or students on task for open-ended projects. Creating a document collaboratively has already been proven a very successful educational technique.

One major hurdle I would like to see bridged is the ability to create private waves. Waves are public by default, although not you can remove users from a wave. To my knowledge, you cannot prevent users from entering a wave to begin with though. This will need to be implemented before many schools really take to wave.

Google Docs is one of my favorite tools; Google Wave has real potential to change many of the ways we work online, but it is not quite there yet. I look at Docs as where we are now and Wave as where Google wants us to go. This brings us to what many consider to be the bridge.

Part 3: Socially awkward

Google badly wants to be a part of the social networking market. It is just such a difficult market. For every success like Twitter, there have been a great number of failed startups. Google has tried and failed at social networking with Orkut already. Orkut was a social network that never really caught on outside of India; now it is losing ground there quickly and they even disabled the ability to export contacts in an attempt to keep people on the network longer.

One social feature that Google has added is Friend Connect. Friend Connect helps people add a community to their website. Basically, people can “follow” your site with their Google profile. It is a good and well-implemented idea. However, it seems to be being overshadowed by Facebook Connect, a similar offering from Facebook.

Google latest new product is Google Buzz. First, Buzz is a social network that is integrated into Gmail. Other than on a cell phone, you need to use Gmail to access the Google Buzz network. Google is hoping for the near ubiquity of Gmail (Yahoo mail and Hotmail still have greater market share.); ideally for Google, Gmail users will try and like Buzz, then recommend it to others who will in turn sign up to use Gmail since they will be using Buzz.

The actual idea behind Buzz is interesting. It is microblogging, similar to Twitter. You can import your Twitter feed, Google chat status, Picasa and Flickr albums, YouTube, and Google Reader. Anything you share on those networks can be shared inside of Buzz in addition to the normal microblogging features. It also adds inline comments to posts, which I like.

The problems with Buzz are many though. First, it was rushed to market in their desperate attempt for relevancy in the social sphere. There were many things that were handled poorly at the onset that have since been corrected, such as showing everyone on Buzz your entire contacts list. Unfortunately, though, many who had a poor first impression of Buzz have not come back. While people are certainly using Buzz, people are not flocking to Buzz in nearly the numbers that Google had hoped.

Second, there is only so much time in the day. I already have a Twitter account, a Facebook account, a LinkedIn account, a blog, and am a member of many other social media sites. I spend an arguably inordinate amount of time managing my social networks because of how much better of a teacher I am because of it. I do not know if I can handle another time-intensive network. I’m willing to try, but I have very little extra time as it is. While some people just setup their accounts so they all post the exact same things, I try to cultivate different relationships in each network, so just posting the same content to all of them is counterproductive.

Third, Buzz makes use of your Google Contacts. My Google Contacts are part professional, part personal. Not all of my contacts are on social networks; some I keep in separate networks. I talk to professionals on LinkedIn and Twitter; I talk to family and friends on Facebook. I don’t want to bring everyone I want to talk to into my Google Contacts. That is just a personal preference, but it is shared by many educators I’ve talked to.

Google Buzz does have some potential to act as a class resource sharing network. The main upside to using Buzz in the classroom is that you would have every student’s email and social network ID in one place, which would simplify the communication process. However, privacy issues are still a concern. It also does not cooperate well with other networks in terms of full integration. For example, I can post to Facebook from my Twitter account; to my knowledge it is not possible to do so with Buzz. It is not a major issue, but it will turn some people off. In addition, I do not see many features that cannot be done better with dedicated tools, such as Diigo/Delicious for sharing resources and Edmodo or Twitter for classroom microblogging.


If you keep your finger to the pulse of the technology industry, you will quickly realize the importance of the real-time web and social networking. They are where the Internet is headed. For better or for worse, educational technology takes its cues from mainstream technology. In the same vein, I fully expect to see 3D applications targeted to education in the next few years as that is becoming so popular outside of education.

We need to be able to harness the best of both worlds to serve our students best. In terms of real-time collaboration, Google is setup to be the clear winner if they can get Wave to a point where end-users want to use it and can also find a good way to index real-time search results. As for social networking, I feel that we may want to look to other, dedicated solutions. There are a plethora of excellent networks and I don’t see Google bringing Buzz to a point where it would be preferable to most people than Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn depending on the demographic. Furthermore, it may not be a bad idea if we keep at least 1 egg out of Google’s very large basket.

While I tried to stay balanced, I realize I said some things that not everyone will agree with. If you feel I was off in anyway or have a any response at all, please let me know if the comments. I value your feedback,

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