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How important is social to Google's future?

It depends on who you ask. Some believe that if Google doesn't find a way to compete in the space, Facebook might eventually eat its lunch.

Those who are a tad more skeptical suggest that Google and its advertising money machine don't need social to thrive.

Time will tell which camp is right, but Google has already decided. With the launch of Google+ and Search, plus Your World, it's clear that the search giant is committed to giving its all in an effort to become a meaningful player in the social market.

There's just one problem: it's having a hard time.

Google+ arguably represents Google's best effort at building a Facebook competitor yet, but that may not be good enough. The company's social network faces significant challenges and there are signs that it's going nowhere fast.

So what's Google to do? Yesterday, it took action by acquiring Milk, an app incubator started by Digg founder Kevin Rose. The day prior, Milk had announced that it was shuttering Oink, its first app.

While terms of the Google-Milk deal have not been revealed publicly, all reports suggest that this deal was an acquihire and that Google was interested primarily in Rose and his product team. The reports also suggest that Google has a very clear goal: use Rose and his colleagues to bolster its efforts in social.

Rose, of course, has been a familiar face in the Silicon Valley start-up scene since founding Digg. While best known for his role at Digg, Rose also created the popular Diggnation video podcast, which was the staple podcast of Revision3.

He co-founded microblogging site Pownce, which was sold to Six Apart after failing to gain traction. In addition to his own start-ups, Rose became an angel investor, putting money into companies like Zynga, Twitter, Facebook and Path.

Rose's pedigree and brand name apparently made him an attractive target for Google, which had already invested money in Milk through its Google Ventures investment arm.

But is Rose capable of fixing all that ails Google's social strategy?

Rose's fans argue that he has just the product savvy Google needs to spruce up its social product offerings. Google's engineering-driven culture, they suggest, needs new blood and Rose, who has been developing high-profile social websites and apps for the better part of the last decade, is as good a candidate as any to help Google look at social with a new perspective.

On the other side, those less fond of Rose would argue that the early Web 2.0 poster child was in the right place at the right time, and in the end failed to see Digg through to the successful outcome that seemed inevitable in its heyday. He has even been blamed for many of the decisions that contributed to Digg's dramatic decline. Since Digg, critics say, he hasn't accomplished anything of note and has thrived solely by leveraging his personal brand and connections.

Who is right?

It doesn't really matter. The real question is whether Rose's presence at Google can help the company crack the social nut. We won't know that for a while. In the meantime, however, one thing is certain: if Google did pay a hefty sum to acquihire a person who has apparently said he prefer not to work in a big organisation, Google would appear to be getting increasingly impatient and desperate. That, for obvious reasons, would not bode well for Google+ and its social future.

Patricio Robles

Published 16 March, 2012 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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