The Story of Google Friend Connect: Google Cambridge’s First Wholly Home-Grown Product

[Updated and corrected, see below—Also see end of story for news of Google announcement of Nov. 4] In May 2008, Google moved into colorful (hey, it’s Google) new offices in the heart of Kendall Square. Governor Deval Patrick played ping-pong at the grand opening with Google site director Steve Vinter. And since then, Google Cambridge has grown to some 200 people spread over four floors, and about evenly split between sales and engineering.

But while engineers at the local Googleplex are working on key infrastructure components such as BigTable and MapReduce and consumer-facing offerings like Google Books and Google Images, only one effort to date has been conceived, developed, and released entirely from here in Cambridge, MA: Google Friend Connect.

GFC is a social media tool that makes it extremely easy for website owners to add social features to their sites—without the need to learn programming. These features include gadgets or plug-ins that allow visitors to automatically import their personal profiles from Google, Yahoo, and other places without having to do it manually for each new site they want to join, as well as widgets for letting users rate and review things. Website owners simply select the features they want, fill out an extremely short (three-item) form, and the code is generated for them to cut and paste into their site. The idea is that such as easy tool will make sites more interactive and interesting, thereby helping site owners attract and retain their users. (We’ll get to Google’s motives later on).

[Editor’s note: the second sentence of this paragraph was amended to reflect the correct number of monthly GFC websites and users.] And it seems to be working. Since the public beta launch last December, Google Friend Connect has grown to some 8 million websites a month spread across what are estimated to be hundreds of millions of users. Google isn’t exactly sure how big GFC has gotten. “It’s big,” though, is how tech lead manager Sami Shalabi sums things up. And there is apparently more news coming. Google says it is planning a big announcement in the near future about GFC.

Besides being the only Google product entirely born, bred, and weaned here in Cambridge, I found the GFC story interesting because it illustrates how entrepreneurship can flourish inside a big company (yes, Google is officially a big company). A small team was allowed to run with a product idea, much like a boot-strapped startup might do—but when the project showed promise, the corporation stepped in with marketing clout virtually impossible to match in the startup world. If done right, that kind of one-two (startup-giant) punch can make up for the overall bureaucratic sluggishness that often permeates big companies (and yes, Google has been known to exhibit some big company bureaucratic traits).

GoogleFriendConnectTeamThe story of Google Friend Connect begins, fittingly enough, with two friends. Shalabi and Mussie Shore met each other in 1998 at Iris Associates, an IBM subsidiary where they worked on a suite of Lotus products, most notably Lotus Quickplace and LotusNotes. I visited the pair on the sixth floor of Google Cambridge, where their 11-person team (counting them) occupies a funky, open workspace in a prime corner area. We then retreated to a “huddle room” (what non-Googlers call a conference room) named Magic Hat. It turns out that all the huddle rooms on the sixth floor are named after beers or breweries, which is cool with the GFC crew because three of the team are microbrewers. (Click on the team image to enlarge it and see a full caption.)

In 2006, Shalabi and Shore got the entrepreneurial bug and, together with Martin Fahey, co-founded Zingku, a social networking startup that made it easier to share things like photos, polls, and invitations via instant messages, e-mail, the Web, and (especially) cell phones. You know who purchased Zingku in fall 2007 (for an undisclosed sum). And it was just a few months after … Next Page »

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