(By Preethi J & Nikhil Pahwa)orkutGoogle owned Orkut is believed to be the largest social network in India in terms of userbase, with claims of around 13-15 million users from the country. In this three part interview series, MediaNama spoke to Google India’s Rahul Kulkarni (Product Manager) and Parminder Singh (Business Head) about the Applications, Mobile, Integration of Google services and News, their Orkut Zeitgeist study, usage trends, branding, advertising and lots more.

Rahul Kulkarni
Rahul Kulkarni

From a community perspective, what happens to Orkut when Google Wave gets launched? Wave looks more like a community product.

Kulkarni: Wave is right now in developer preview and we are seeing interesting use cases and ideas on it. There is one demo that integrates Orkut with Wave. There are developers who are playing around assuming…say, how do you take your social graph from Orkut into Wave and vice versa.

On Orkut, you have integrated videos from YouTube, Chat with Google Talk. What more can we expect?

Kulkarni: You can think of Orkut as a photo site, video site or email site. The primary point of integration has been on the infrastructure, in terms of scaling of user identity. Once you log into the Google account, you are part of Orkut right there. We are working towards closing the gap with other platforms, making sure you feel you are on a common property, so you should be able to take your friends and media items wherever you go.

Open Social has been one of our biggest pushes over the past year. The developer community is using open source to create apps for Orkut as well as other platforms. There are bunch of open social apps that are temporal in nature like one for IPL for Cricket. There was one app that gave a ball by ball animated view of the match, and also allowed interactions with other users. That takes it to another dimension. We also had a bunch of apps for polling opinions around the Indian elections.

I haven’t seen Google Web Search being integrated into Orkut, like the way it is in GMail. Why is that?
orkut-quote1
Kulkarni: We’d like to figure out the best way to surface Orkut data on search and search data on Orkut. We have been looking at news feeds on communities, or RSS feeds on communities. It’s a thin line – when people sign up for a social network, they dont want their data splashed on the web. We are closely looking at what makes sense to be rendered outside, and what makes sense to come up as search results in Orkut.

Will Google News be integrated? Or will it be the mandate of App Developers to do it?

Kulkarni: If you search communities for recent events, news is covered there instantly. The Brazil airplane crash was the top searched term on Orkut when it happened. There is a Sachin Tendulkar community that tracks his every move, that is the source of news for many people. Going ahead, it will be an interesting challenge of trying to integrate mainstream news with citizen journalism. Communities like Muktapeeth, the citizen journalism arm by Sakaal Times which is very popular. There is an Bhor community 17 miles south of Pune which has 8000-10,000 inhabitants, but it has about 30 communities devoted to schools there, where users discuss news and plan activities, or start a movement. News on Orkut is not news anymore – it’s actionable content.

orkut-apps

Hence the question about trying to stimulate conversations with News, and also look regionalised news that can be integrated. Anything planned on these lines?

Kulkarni: There is a strong tie there, and we would evolve to tap into it better. Right now users have figured out intelligently how to use it, temporaly, for their location or interest groups but we will find a way to better surface it for the regular user.

Parminder Singh

Parminder Singh

How is Orkut Mobile working for you?

Kulkarni: We have seen millions of active users on mobile. I have to admit, it has been better than what was initially expected when we first launched on mobile in India. We were concerned people would not have data plans. Orkut is the prime application people are using on the mobile. Incremental data plans allow users to scrap and they have started using it in preference to SMS as it would be, say, 10 paise to scrap. Also, with J2ME apps, people are uploading pictures to Orkut. Mobile Internet usage is evolving much faster than we thought it would. It is encouraging.

Are you working with handset manufacturers and mobile operators to become the default application on handsets?

Kulkarni: Popularity of Orkut makes it a win-win situation. We have a symbiotic relationship with carriers and OEMs. We cant name specific names as yet. We have tie ups with a bunch of them for links on homepage, joint marketing and other things.

google-mobileWhat is your monetisation model on mobile?

Singh: Mobile is a strong segment for us, and we (Google India) see around 20 percent searches from the mobile, and there has been strong traction. If you look at mobile searches, they follow a slightly different pattern from desktop – it’s more about instant gratification. It works well for a wide variety of advertisers.

But according to the Opera reports, Orkut Mobile appears to be doing exceptionally well in India. You have the usage…how are you planning to monetize the usage?

Singh: As an when we do it, we will keep you informed about the monetization of Orkut mobile. It continues to have strong traction.

Kulkarni: We don’t have ads on the Orkut Mobile version yet. We would like to nail the user experience first, and then try to monetise later.

What has Orkut planned, in terms of a rollout, for the quarter?

Kulkarni: We are expanding the way the APIs work. The web version of Orkut will evolve. We are looking at mobile as a strong space as it’s a critical step – it could the first experience of the Internet for some people.

How many apps are there on Orkut? How many App developers?

Kulkarni: there are over 5000 now…around 5100. More than half of the top apps in India are by Indian developers. India has a very strong, vibrant developer community. It’s structured in terms of application development. They are temporal and create movie based applications, quizzes.

What kind of apps tick?

Kulkarni: In terms of usage, that’s another evolution – people have moved from slapping/poking with Slapster to more self expression, communication. We see apps where you can post fancy scraps, expressing mood of the day. More complex apps such as semi-strategy games, apps connected to Bollywood or local film industry. Apps that are popular typically have ties with local culture.

Have you looked at applications as a means to monetize Orkut?

Kulkarni: We are not currently looking at apps for monetising Orkut. We want the app developer community to be a self sustaining community and monetise it themselves. The most popular app today is BuddyPoke, where avatars interact. They have introduced virtual currency in it.

If there is no monetisation involved for the app developer, does this mean the app becomes a branding play?

Kulkarni: Advertising is allowed, and a few developers have started virtual currency and charging on premium SMS on phone. Ads is still the primary way they monetise and they are doing decently well there.

Have you thought of integrating a general classifieds model into a social network for monetization of Orkut?

There are a couple of applications that have classifieds models. We look at features and see what sticks. If it delights the user, we would look at monetizing it. What we found with classifieds is that is it’s still early in India. It ranges from trust being a factor, buying second hand goods…the market still needs to evolve for classifieds to be successful in India.

Is Orkut Promote a baby step in that direction?

Promote would definitely test the waters there. We haven’t yet launched it broadly, but from what we’ve seen, people have started promoting homemade videos, musicians have promoting started their own bands, and there’s classifieds. Who better to trust than your friends? We’re seeing a wide range of things.

When can we see a full fledged rollout of Orkut Promote?

It’s happening as we speak: I wouldn’t have specific dates, but it has launched in a couple of countries.

Part 1: Orkut Zeitgeist, ID Theft, Indic Languages, Partnerships, Trends & More
Part 2: On Orkut Applications, Integration Of Google Properties, Mobile, Orkut Promote
Part 3: Branding & Monetization; AdWords, CTRs