Google is just one acquisition away from offering a social network that does everything Facebook does, minus all the things everybody hates about Facebook.
This social network is called Google Profiles.
Starting today, you can choose a "vanity URL" of sorts, meaning you can use your Gmail address as part of your Google Profiles URL. (The URL used to use a long string of numbers.) For example, my new URL is: www.google.com/profiles/mike.elgan
Looking at it now, you'd never guess that Google Profiles is the biggest potential threat to Facebook anywhere. But Profiles is still missing one crucial ingredient, which I'll get to in a minute. First, let's do a quick inventory of what Google Profiles does have:
Profiles - Google Profiles' main page shows more or less what Facebook's "Info" tab shows bio information.
Photos - Photos can have captions, and visitors can comment. You're required to use a service like Picassa, however. The upside is that photos are larger.
Links - You can link to stuff both in the "About me" part of your profile, and also in a dedicated upper right corner link area. Importantly, these links are indexed by Google Search.
My Places - A Google Profile shows a map showing where you live and where you have lived in the past.
Contact Information - You can provide all the usual data phone numbers, e-mail addresses, etc., and designate who you want to share it with. Strangers see your profile, but not your contact info.
Messaging - You can "Send a message" to someone from their profile. They get the message as regular e-mail in their Gmail inbox. The cool thing is that if you do not choose a vanity URL, the sender never knows your e-mail address.
As you would expect from Google, Profiles is clean and simple, which is its most powerful attribute against Facebook. The Facebook user interface is cumbersome, bloated, counter-intuitive and complex.
Facebook encourages people to spam you with quasi-coercive invitations to participate in this, join that or install some objectionable application. Hopefully Google Profiles will never have that stuff.
Best of all, you and your various interests are far more discoverable on Google Profiles. Google advises people who are signing up that "the more information you provide, the easier it will be for friends to find you."
In other words, the process of creating a Google Profile is SEO. Everything you do that wants traffic -- your blog, your company, the non-profit organizations where you volunteer -- can be promoted on the profile. And strangers can read your public profile.
When you're trying to find a friend on Facebook, say, someone named "Chris Jackson," Facebook doesn't give you enough information to determine which of the many Chris Jacksons on Facebook is your actual friend. Many times, for example, I've befriended strangers thinking they were friends. The photo shown is too small, and almost no other info is given.
With Google Profiles, you can see more data, and Google indexes more data, which makes you more discoverable.
The Missing Link: Twitter
The problem with Google Profiles as a social network is that it's not social.
Google Profiles lacks the equivalent of Facebook's "Wall Posts" and "Status Updates." (Profiles has a status message, but only people on your Gmail Chat buddy list can see it.)
And this is why Google should buy Twitter.
Once acquired and integrated, clicking on "Profile" from the main Twitter page should bring you to Google Profiles replacing the profile page of Twitter. In other words, every single Twitter user would automatically become a Google Profiles user by default.
This would simply be consistent with Google's stated intent with Profiles: "Google Profiles will be integrated in most Google services so you have a coherent identity and a simple way to manage your contacts."
Google Profiles should include a major section that functions as a Twitter client. It would show all your incoming Tweets, and share them with your "friends" or contacts on Google Profiles. Alternatively, you should be able to show and share only the tweets sent by people on your contacts list. In other words, either your full Twitter stream or a subset of that stream, would serve as your "Wall Posts."
The end result of this integration would be a social network far better than Facebook.
Rather than being a link dead-end like Facebook, Profiles would be a launching pad of discoverability for everything you want to promote. It would be cleaner, faster and easier to use than Facebook. And it would be a one-stop shop for both social networking and Twitter.
I think that if Google buys Twitter and integrates it with Profiles, adds photo tagging and aggressively pushes Profiles on users of all its other properties, including Blogger, Reader, YouTube, Calendar and the rest, Facebook will be in serious trouble.