Orkut Guards India Fort Against Facebook

India is the world’s second-largest market after Brazil for online search giant Google’s social networking site, Orkut. India is also one of only two markets where Orkut is ahead of Facebook, which recently declared its 500 millionth member worldwide. Orkut has a fifth of that, globally.

However, data from companies like web analytics firm comScore indicates that Orkut’s India bastion may soon fall to Facebook.

Google, though, is not sitting idle. Keen to prove that the first-mover advantage does amount to something, it plans to introduce products, especially for mobiles — a Facebook fiefdom — in a bid to retain leadership in India. Orkut may also tweak its privacy laws and make its interface simpler, according to a person familiar with the development. The changes are expected to be announced by the end of this month.

“Most of Orkut’s numbers come from desktop users. This is the primary reason why Orkut would introduce products for the mobile platform in India,” said the source. Google has a product development team in India, which is helping to create these new mobile products. A Google India spokesperson declined to comment on the developments.
Orkut is less popular in the US than competitors Facebook and MySpace. As of July, Alexa traffic ranked Orkut 65th worldwide. Yet, Orkut remains one of the most visited social networking websites in India (with 20 million users) and Brazil (over 50 million).

Vinay Goel, country head-products for Google India, says: “After Orkut was introduced in 2004, feedback from users helped introduce new features such as Indian themes and a richer, more powerful user interface. With over 20 million users in India, we will continue to innovate.” However, Goel did not elaborate, nor did he comment on the competition.
Orkut was certainly at the vanguard of popularising social networking in India. Rivals such as Rediff Pages, ibibo, and DesiMartini have cropped up over the years, while others like hi5, Fully Faltoo Network and Ryze fell by the wayside.

However, Orkut now faces its most formidable foe in Facebook. In April, a comScore study revealed that facebook.com ranked as the top social network across a majority of individual markets in Asia-Pacific. Yet, competing brands commanded top positions in certain markets, including Orkut in India, Mixi.jp in Japan, CyWorld in South Korea and Wretch.cc in Taiwan. In May, Facebook attracted 18 million unique visitors in India, compared with Orkut’s 19.7 million, according to comScore.
According to the same data, Facebook grew 177 per cent last year, compared with 35 per cent for Orkut. Last month, Facebook announced two key appointments at its India office in Hyderabad: Krithiga Reddy as India director-online operations, and Manoj Varghese as director-user operations.

Hareesh Tibrewala, joint chief executive officer of Social Wavelength, talks of a trend of Orkut users gradually shifting to Facebook. “This can have a catastrophic effect, since the power of a social networking site is exponential,” he says.
Moksh Juneja, a social media analyst with Avignyata, concurs, while disapproving of Google’s penchant for new beta products like Google Me, Google Social and Google Profiles. “This can confuse the individual as to which Google profile is the most important for his social networking needs online.”
# India has the second largest user base for Orkut with 20 million

# Facebook attracted 18 mn unique visitors in India in May

# Orkut had 19.7 mn unique users in May

# Facebook grew 177 per cent last year

# Orkut grew 35 per cent last year
Globally, Google is understood to be in talks with several makers of popular online games to develop a broader social networking service to compete with Facebook. However, in India, Google may adopt a different route.

“Almost 50 per cent of Facebook’s 18 million users access the social networking site on their cellular phones,” says Mahesh Murthy, founder & CEO of digital marketing firm Pinstorm. “It is natural that Google would concentrate on this space.” Murthy, who advises clients on social media buying, says he tells them to advertise on Facebook if they want to target affluent people in large cities. “Orkut, on the other hand, caters largely to users from smaller cities,” he adds.
Besides, Orkut caters primarily to youngsters in the 15-28 age group, while Facebook is used by people largely aged 18-40.

Tibrewala believes Orkut “has a fighting chance because of the clout and base that Google enjoys”. For instance, when Google launched Google Buzz in February, it banked on the noise that its nearly 180 million Gmail users could create (though Buzz is yet to fly). Juneja says Orkut has a chance because it still has a huge database. “Google has a strong development centre in India and a strong sales team, which can bring in advertisements for Orkut.”