Douglas Edwards was employee #59 at Google, where he headed up brand management around everything from April Fool’s Day to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the launch of products like Gmail, and the company’s IPO. In a new book, I’m Feeling Lucky, he writes about the launch of orkut.com, a social network built by engineer Orkut Buyukkokten under the product supervision of Marissa Mayer. Mr. Buyukkokten came to Google from Stanford where he “had become intrigued by the idea of social networks–a way to connect with friends and acquaintances online.”
As a student, the engineer had created a social network called “Club Nexus” for his friends at Stanford. He decided to use his 20 percent free time at Google to build it out, and built “orkut”–originally code-named “Eden,” then renamed after it was determined that the domain was unavailable–entirely on his own as a prototype. The project, Ms. Mayer had decided, would be a demonstration of how to incubate a start-up style project within Google’s increasingly bureaucratic structure, and kept it apart from Google Labs. This was arguably the company’s first mistake.
Three Ways Google Botched orkut’s Launch
1. Messaging: Sergey Brin and Ms. Mayer wanted orkut to have no Google branding whatsoever, and wanted execs to say they could “neither confirm nor deny” a connection between the companies if reporters asked, even though a quick search would reveal the connections between the two companies. “Product management of orkut had been bungled from day one,” Mr. Edwards writes. In the end, the site launched with a small note: “in affiliation with Google.”
The messaging was confusing and it kept Google from taking full responsibility for the project, which ended up having semi-disastrous consequences.
Orkut–which in Finnish means “multiple sexual climaxes”–was immediately overrun by spam and porn and had to be taken offline immediately. Google’s engineers were furious, and some felt the negligence constituted a violation of “Don’t be evil.”
3. “Tech snobbery.” Paul Buchheit, the creator of Gmail, said Google’s “tech snobbery was getting in the way of its success,” as orkut was getting popular until it got slowed down by traffic and engineers ceased working on it. Facebook launched two weeks after orkut, and “these services jumped in and did whatever it took to make things work. Facebook was just a bunch of college kids. It had no brilliant coders.” And because orkut was written with Microsoft tools, engineers “turned up their noses at it and they didn’t make the thing work. They just let it die.” By the time Google rewrote the backend, orkut was dead everywhere but Brazil.
Some good came out of this social networking experiment. Mr. Buchheit took lessons from the botched orkut launch to inform his development of Gmail, and some of orkut was integrated into Google+, which so far has been pretty well-received.