Google Poaching Beacon Partners For "Universal Activity Stream"

googleogo5.gifCan Google succeed where Facebook fell flat on its face? It’s been chasing Facebook with OpenSocial, its own platform for social networking applications (which still has a long way to go). But now, we’ve learned, it might be trying to incorporate parts of Facebook’s controversial Beacon program into OpenSocial. Remember, that’s the one that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had to apologize for the way it was initially rolled out because of privacy concerns.

Other Websites that became Beacon partners, like Epicurious, Yelp, and Chase, would automatically send information about certain actions Facebook members took on their sites and send it to Facebook, where it would be become a part of that person’s News feed visible to all his or her friends. These messages might include things like “Mary rated a recipe for lemon pie on” or “Sam reviewed the Palace Hotel on Yelp” or “Danny signed up for a credit card at Chase.” The privacy police objected, and Facebook has since made it easier for its members to opt out of the program.

Given this controversy, you’d think that Google wouldn’t touch anything remotely Beacon-like with a ten-foot pole. But a source familiar with the matter says that Google has contacted at least one Facebook Beacon partner, and perhaps more, in an effort to drum up support for its own initiative for OpenSocial, which it is calling “universal activity streams. These “universal activity streams” are meant to combine all actions you take online, similar to Facebook’s Beacon, and present them as a line of text in your personal activity feed on Google or an OpenSocial partner site like MySpace or Bebo. Within Google, for instance, these feeds could appear in Gmail, iGoogle, or Google Reader. The universal activity stream is expected to launch around February or March of next year.

All of this is still at a very early stage and Google may decide not to roll out universal activity streams. It appears to have just started reaching out to Beacon partners. Yelp CEO, and Beacon partner, Jeremy Stoppelman says, “We haven’t heard anything from Google about this. Most of the hubbub with Beacon seemed to be around opt-in vs opt-out so presumably they’d take the more conservative approach to keep everybody comfortable.” Says another Beacon partner, who also has yet to be contacted: “We started hearing about it through the grapevine. They’d be pretty stupid not to do it.” Google would not comment.

For Google, “activity streams” were always part of the plan. In fact, developers already can create similar “activity streams” for their applications. Since launch, OpenSocial’s documentation (see here) has always included support for activity streams that report on a user’s action to whatever host the developer chooses. They are consumable through a widget based on OpenSocial’s activity stream API. But Google currently specifies that these streams are not to be commercial in nature:

Posts must be about activities performed by users of your application or service. Don’t post promotional messages or other messages that don’t pertain to an actual user activity. If Google notices a client posting a promotional message or abusing the feeds, we will block that client from posting to our Activities services.

The new initiative would extend the functionality of thee activity streams to partner sites a la Beacon. But it is not clear that Google will have to change its rules or only approach those Beacon partners who share non-commercial messages. Even with Beacon, partner sites are only sharing “activities performed by users” on their sites. Where this gets blurry is when those activities themselves are of a commercial nature.

Isn’t sharing my ratings of a restaurant or hotel promotional at some level? Or is it just a helpful recommendation? The idea of gathering all of a person’s social actions on the Web and sharing them in a feed does not necessarily have to be connected to advertising, and it is something Google has been supporting experimentally with its funding of Carnegie Mellon’s Socialstream project. It makes sense to be able to share your social actions on the Web with your friends and acquaintances. Where companies get into trouble is when they let the marketers piggyback on these social interactions in inappropriate ways.

Hopefully, Google has taken to heart some of the lessons learned by watching Facebook’s Beacon fiasco. If it wants to prevent this from backfiring in a similar way, Google needs to make its program opt-in instead of opt-out (which is still the way Beacon works). It should consider keeping it purely non-commercial to start. Partner sites should not send any information to Google’s servers until the person in question has given tacit approval to do so. And consumers should be given minute control on a partner-by-partner basis about what information they want to share and what they don’t. But if these universal activity streams start showing up in my Bebo feed or Gmail with text that turns out to be an AdSense ad . . . well, that would be just plain evil.

(My colleague Nick Gonzalez contributed some major reporting for this post).