Google’s social czar picks a location fight with Facebook

Vic GundotraGoogle’s timing can be peculiar — but rarely coincidental. A day after Facebook launched its first location feature, the search giant revealed in a blog post Thursday that more than 100 million users check Google Maps on mobile devices.

Also worth noting is the author of the blog post: Vic Gundotra. Gundotra was Google’s head of mobile — and the past tense there is key. He’s now running Google’s efforts to combat Facebook in social networking, the project some are calling Google Me.

So why is Gundotra back on his mobile turf? One possible explanation: Google sees mobile as the key way to catch up with Facebook. And Maps is one of Google’s strongest mobile features.

Gundotra’s sally comes on the heels of Facebook’s launch of Places, which allows users to announce their location and their friends locations to others on the service. Facebook showed off Places to reporters Wednesday night, then announced that it had rolled it out to 125 million U.S. users Thursday.

In his post, Gundotra highlighted some of Google Maps’s popular features, such as My Location, which lets users track their position even on phones without GPS features, and Navigation, which adds voice guidance and street-side photographs to turn an ordinary cell phone into a complete navigation device.

Gundotra paid a special mention to Latitude, the somewhat sidelined feature most in use today by Android users to share their location and track friends’ whereabouts, and Place Pages, which was added to the product last year to provide a layer of meta-data such as reviews and photos around each of its locations.

It’s no surprise, of course, that the latter two concepts form what is essentially the heart of Facebook Places. Latitude is what Places enables at its core — to share your location and track your friends. Google’s and Facebook’s Place Pages share not only a name but offer much of the same information.

In highlighting Latitude and Place Pages, however, Gundotra inadvertently highlighted what Google’s social efforts are missing: people. Facebook Places let users tag their friends with a location, and Place Pages track who likes a location and who’s checked in there.

With Facebook’s version of the feature, the utility isn’t in seeing basic information about a place, it is in finding out whether your friends have visited it in the past, what they’ve said about it, and who else is at the place right now.

No surprise there: From its formative years, Google has centered around technology and data, while Facebook has been defined by the interactions between people.

It is easy to see that with Facebook Places, the social network wants users’ experiences around the “where” to be much more about “who” than “what.” Google Maps, as useful as it is to millions everyday, has almost always been solely about the “what” in the “where.” Latitude, Google’s attempt at answering “who,” has fallen flat, leaving the question to be answered first by startups like Foursquare and Gowalla, and now by Facebook.

It’s interesting to ponder whether Gundotra’s blog post serves simply as a reminder that Google is alive and kicking in the location space, or if it hints at a bigger picture. Does Gundotra know what’s missing on Google’s social map?

Front page image via Jolie O’dell