Buzz vs. Twitter – Is there really a contest?

At this point, everybody and their mom knows Twitter.  From its humble beginnings directing people to free booze at South by Southwest, it’s become an Internet powerhouse – books are written on how to market through it, Oprah (sort of) has an account on it, and an entire sub-culture has sprung up around cramming your life into 140-character snippets.

Now, though, Twitter has to deal with the biggest dog on the block, Google.  With the recent launch of Google Buzz (basically Google Wave, but with users), the big G has entered the world of… well, hell, what do we call it?  Microblogging?  Social media?  Mini-updating?  Up until about a week ago, it was just called Tweeting.

I deal with Twitter every day.  I may not be the most popular guy (on Twitter, thank you), but it’s a big part of what I do.  I monitor the @chitika account for customer service and tech support requests, and I run my own @danielruby account to try to make myself awesome, famous, and preferably uber-rich.  So, I feel a little qualified to compare the two.

First, the interface.  Google has a Web interface that – are you listening, Twitter? – does not suck.  You can be assured there will be no fail-Sergey Brins floating about.  Plus, the mobile version of Buzz is powerful enough to capture the smartphone market without relying on a slew of third-party interface creators.

Google has taken the elements that make Gmail the most user-friendly yet powerful webmail client and incorporated them into a social media element.

Twitter, meanwhile, just recently added the Retweet function – one of Twitter’s mainstays and included in every third-party client for the past three years.  The web interface doesn’t crash as much as it used to – the Fail Whale is gradually being forgotten – and it’s got a sort of spartan simplicity the likes of which made Google the go-to search engine.

Google 1, Twitter 0.

Another point is the user base.  Twitter has a massive base of people using it – 75 million, according to a recent report – but an estimated 83% of them are inactive.  Gmail – in which Buzz is built – is estimated to have over 150 million users.  How many of those users are active is unknown, but email is a core pillar of modern life.  The only real threat is the number of people getting Gmail through third-party programs, like Thunderbird and Outlook.

Update: TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington is concerned about the force-feeding of Buzz to Gmail users.

Google 2, Twitter 0.

There’s a few other things that Google Buzz has going for it.  Threaded conversations, for example, are brilliant, and I hope they come to Twitter.  It makes it easier to recognize and call out spammers, and allows the conversation to have continuity.  For Twitter to have the same continuity, whoever is reading has to go back and find the @ tags between users, or just have been involved with the discussion from the beginning.

In the end, it’s going to be a battle of adoption and usage.  Features-wise, both have their positives and negatives.  Twitter has an excellent network of microblogger/social mediaist/Tweeters built up who expect this kind of service.  Google has a massive network of general Internet users, who may or may not give two hoots about “updates” and “buzz”.

And one major thing to remember: microblogging is NOT Google’s core business model.  Search and text ads are.  Will Google put the effort into an auxiliary product that Twitter will put into its bread, butter, and cheese?  Looking at the long list of “beta” Google products that looked awesome but fizzled for lack of internal support (Wave, SketchUp, Google Video, etc.), that’s a distinct possibility.