Less than five months after launch, Google (GOOG) is shutting down virtual world Lively. The reason it’s going away: It’s useless to Google’s search ad business. Which is why the company said it’s dumping Lively to “focus more on our core search, ads and apps business.”
But that doesn’t mean that Google couldn’t have built a decent virtual world if it wanted to. If Google wasn’t under the gun by a tanking economy, and if they had real incentive to build a virtual world, here’s how they could have made Lively more successful:
- Hold up the launch of Windows- and Internet Explorer-only Lively until it runs on Firefox and the Mac. A disproportionate number of the early-adopter community uses the Mac and/or the Firefox web browser. If you throw a Hail Mary like “everyone get avatars and move into 3D chat,” you need the Firefox and Mac users on board right away. (This goes for Google Chrome too, the company should port it to the Mac ASAP.)
- Scrub the virtual world completely free of sex and violence. In Lively, you could use the “crush” command to make an anvil fall out of the sky and wallop another user’s avatar, or use “kick” to hit someone in the groin. It was funny. Actually, it was so funny all anyone did in Lively was try “punch” or “choke” anyone in range. And some of Lively’s avatar designs — especially the anthropomorphic animals — were creepy enough, even without random furries always trying to beat you up or romance you.
- Showcase what can be done with the technology. Here Google made the same mistake with Lively that Linden Lab made with Second Life — it put its virtual world technology out into the public domain and thought its mission ended there. It doesn’t. Google should have hosted its own Lively rooms and held events in them, encouraging new users to try out the service. Lively rooms would have been a great tie-in with other Google services like Orkut or Google Groups — but Google was content to let Lively flounder alone at lively.com.
- Make Lively an extension of Google’s advertising platform. It would have been relatively easy for Google to program Lively to include advertisements piped in from elsewhere on the web, so a virtual room contains a space a few hundred pixels square that rotates through an ad in Google’s inventory. The company could then split revenue with any website that hosts and gets traffic to an ad-enabled Lively room — just like it does with flat web pages via AdSense. There’s probably only pennies involved, especially in this ad climate. And good luck finding advertisers who prefer avatars to real customers. But Lively could have been much more likely to propagate if people had financial incentive to use it.
Of course, Google did none of these things. The point: Watchers of the fledgling virtual worlds industry — which raised almost half a billion dollars in investment just in the first three quarters of this year — shouldn’t read Google’s departure from the game as a negative verdict on the virtual worlds idea as a whole. Google didn’t even really try.
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