Reporting from San Francisco — Google Inc. is getting more social.
The Internet giant, which has faltered in its attempts to break into the booming social networking business, is making another bid to counter the growing influence of Silicon Valley rival Facebook Inc. and San Francisco upstart Twitter Inc.
Google on Tuesday rolled out a new service dubbed Buzz that it says will make it easier and quicker to share information, photos and videos with friends on its popular Internet e-mail service Gmail. Buzz will also be available on smart phones, taking advantage of GPS location to fetch information about nearby businesses and wireless hot spots.
It marks perhaps the company's boldest effort yet to take on the runaway leaders in social networking, which are increasingly challenging Google for the time and attention of Web surfers.
Social networking continued to gain momentum last year with nearly four out of five Internet users visiting a social networking site on a monthly basis, according to the marketing research firm ComScore. Facebook and Twitter propelled much of the growth.
Google is still the Web's most-visited site. But Facebook is gaining. It was the fourth-most visited site in December, with 111.8 million visitors, according to ComScore. Also, companies such as Foursquare and Gowalla that combine social networking with a user's geographic location are becoming increasingly popular among younger, mobile-phone users.
Analysts said it was smart for Google to tap into Gmail, which had 176 million users in December, according to ComScore. Forrester Research analyst Augie Ray called it one of Google's most ambitious moves in social networking. But he questioned how quickly Buzz would catch on. "It may be hard for Gmail users to ignore Buzz. But I don't see Buzz pulling people away from their existing social networks and tools quickly,"Ray said.
How it works: Buzz automatically signs you up to follow the people with whom you most frequently e-mail and chat and then allows you to share YouTube videos, Flickr photos and other content. Buzz posts can be set to "public" mode so anyone can view them or "private" mode to limit them to a list of friends. Google also said that Buzz can point you to posts from your social network that will be of the most interest to you while filtering out distracting or irrelevant information.
Buzz rolled out to about 1% of Gmail users Tuesday and will reach the rest of the accounts by week's end, the company said. Google plans to make a corporate version of Buzz for companies that buy its e-mail services.
Google last month quietly kicked off its new campaign to "organize the world's social information" with a new feature that displays search results related to your friends. Google has also hired Silicon Valley social networking experts Joseph Smarr and Chris Messina to help shepherd its efforts.
Despite its dominance in Internet search, Google has struggled to gain a foothold in social networking, where it has been outmaneuvered by smaller, more nimble competitors. Orkut, its social networking service, gained a mass following in Brazil and India but never got traction elsewhere. Attempts to buy its way into social networking also fell flat, with Google acquiring -- then ultimately scrapping -- services offered by Twitter competitor Jaiku and Foursquare forebear Dodgeball.
Now it's using Gmail as a vehicle to drive its social strategy.
"Google had two choices: Leverage a platform it already had or start new again," said technology blogger Louis Gray. "This is their best shot."
Analysts remain skeptical that this latest effort will catapult Google into the social stratosphere.
"We do not expect Buzz to pose a threat to the likes of Facebook or Twitter," said Scott Kessler, an analyst with Standard & Poor's Equity Research.
Meanwhile, Facebook in particular has exploded in popularity, with 400 million users, becoming an integral part of many people's lives.
"Google Buzz is certainly worth watching, but it is not a sure thing," said Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of the blog Search Engine Land. "Google has to fight to win in the social space as much as anybody. Google is not guaranteed to hit anything out of the park."