Google Dusts Off Discussion Groups
Online discussion forums date from the Internet's early days, and many people consider them passe in the Web 2.0 era of blogs, wikis, and social networks. But Google has no plan to put its Groups service out to pasture.
On the contrary, Google today unveiled an updated version of Groups. The discussion forum now sports a redesigned interface and new features such as the ability to create and edit Web pages and to upload and share files. According to Andrew Zaeske, Groups' engineering manager, this is just the beginning of the service's makeover.
Many of the new features have been available in a beta test version since last October; but the test is now over, and the improvements have been implemented in the main Google Groups service, the company said today.
The revamp gives Google Groups a facelift designed to keep it relevant as a tool for people to use in sharing information online. Once the most common way for people to form online communities, discussion forums must now compete with blogs, social networks, photo and video sharing sites, social news and bookmarking sites, virtual worlds, multiplayer games, and wikis.
Groups Still Valid?
At least one analyst believes that keeping Google Groups alive is wise because discussion forums remain useful to people interested in exchanging information on specific issues in a simple, mostly text-based, controlled online environment.
"Yes, you can argue that in the Web 2.0 world maybe discussion forums look a little dated," said Allen Weiner, a Gartner analyst. "But while discussion forums may not seem very 2007, the inherent beauty that made the Usenet model so appealing is that it allows passionate, like-minded people with a very granular interest to come together, in more of a closed community."
For now, Web 2.0 sites such as social networks and blogs seem to work best when they appeal to a broad, massive audience, and they seem to wither and wilt if they can't reach a certain scale, Weiner said. "Google Groups is certainly not Web 2.0, but I would label it Web 1.5," he said.
Current Google Groups users will see the new interface and features the next time they visit the site. Other enhancements include the ability to customize the look of forums, along with a new layout for threaded conversations done in the style of Google's Gmail Web mail service.
To join a Google Groups forum, visitors need only provide a valid e-mail address. Users who have a Google Account get access to more features.
The new version of Google Groups is available in 19 interface languages: U.S. English, U.K. English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Dutch, Brazilian Portuguese, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Russian, Swedish, Polish, Turkish, Korean, Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese, and Japanese.
In an interview with IDG News Service, Google's Zaeske explained that the company sees Groups as a great vehicle for discussion, collaboration, and content generation. An edited transcript of the interview follows.
IDGNS: Google launched Groups about six years ago, after acquiring Deja.com's Usenet Discussion Service, whose archive of forums and messages dated back to 1995. Today people have other newer services to interact online, like social networks, blogs, wikis, and virtual worlds. Aren't discussion forums a bit dated?
Zaeske: With Groups we're going well beyond normal discussion forums by adding the ability to do great things like creating Web pages and the appearance for your group. We're trying to complement discussions with a lot of the great things going on on the Web right now that make it really exciting for people to collaborate. Blogs are mostly about self-expression, and social networks are largely about having fun. Wikis are about gathering knowledge. We see the new version of Groups as wikis for the masses, with discussions woven in.
IDGNS: Still, as these newer Web 2.0 services continue to expand and improve, won't discussion forums become obsolete in the near future?
Zaeske: Discussions in general are a feature that is useful for a number of reasons and that will never become obsolete and will be part of all of these services [like wikis, social networks, and blogs]. Discussions are a source of publicly searchable information--particularly of user expertise in certain areas--but it's also very convenient to get into discussions.
We think adding Web page creation and the ability to change the appearance of your forum will cause Groups to be perceived as more than just a discussion forum product. Our goal is to let people do all sorts of creative things and talk about them in Groups. I'd say that Groups is more about groupware going forward and less specifically about discussions. It offers a great discussion service, but with the new features it's a lot about collaboration and expression and content creation.
IDGNS: Do you foresee integrating other functionality, like blogging, into Groups?
Zaeske: There are all sorts of wonderful things we want to do to Groups. Blogging would be a great feature. I can't comment on whether we're planning on doing that, but it would be very useful for Groups to have a blog feature. It'd be a natural thing to add to a group.
IDGNS: What about a wiki feature?
Zaeske: What we've just launched is essentially a wiki for people who don't know what the term wiki is. You can create Web pages, collaboratively edit them, have discussions on them, set access privileges in the group. It's pretty much a wiki.
IDGNS: What are Groups' usage and popularity like?
Zaeske: I can't comment on specific metrics, but obviously we're very interested in revamping the whole product, and that's due to the popularity we see in Groups. We want to take it to the next stage. People search it a lot because of the public information and the discussions that are available. Often when you can't find your answer on the Web, you can find it in Groups because someone has talked about it there.
IDGNS: Do you foresee any synergy between Groups and the wiki service JotSpot that Google recently acquired?
Zaeske: We're looking very closely at opportunities there. We're very excited about that. JotSpot offers some amazing things that seem very similar to what Groups offers so we're looking very closely at working together.
IDGNS: What about embedding word processing and spreadsheet functionality into Groups, from Google Docs & Spreadsheets?
Zaeske: I think that would be a great feature to add to the product. I can't comment on whether we're looking at that. Groups offers a lot of collaborative features; but if you look at Docs & Spreadsheets, that's another type of collaboration--and we're always looking at how we can bolt all these features together and leverage them.
IDGNS: Google is under a mandate from co-founder Sergey Brin to simplify and consolidate its menu of products and services. Would Groups be considered an umbrella-type of service under whose interface other services could be grouped?
Zaeske: That'd be a great question for our VP of products. I think collaboration in general is a category that's very important to Google--and content creation as well. How we package that is something that is a secret kind of thing right now.