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Google Keen

Google’s Area 120 Launches Keen, An Experimental Pinterest Rival


Timing really is everything.

On the face of it, a Google social network makes sense. It already knows a lot about us and our connections, plus it has YouTube.

And yet, Google+ never really stood a chance. It gave Facebook a head start in what turned out to be a winner-takes-all market.

Google has made only tentative forays back into this field after the highly-publicised failure of Google+.

Social media has changed since then, however. TikTok is booming, Snapchat continues to innovate, and Pinterest is making steady strides with visual search.

In short, there is room for more than just Facebook in social media’s second act.

Still, the same challenge remains for the world’s biggest search engine.

If anything, it grows steeper with every new app that captures the public’s imagination and shapes their collective behaviour patterns.

See, people don’t create content for Google.

Sure, companies create web pages with the aim of driving traffic to that content via Google.

But they don’t create content campaigns for the sole purpose of consumption in the Google search results.

Google is the invisible hand that curates and displays snippets of articles for us. In fact, it will now pay news publishers for the right to do so, in an acknowledgement that it has no ownership rights over the content that populates its platform.

That means Google loses out on valuable audience attention.

Brands do create specific content for each social network.

Which brings us to another challenge.

See, people don’t hang out on Google. Google does its job best, like a football referee, when you barely notice it’s there.

The role of distant, omniscient narrator is no longer de rigueur.

Nowadays, platform businesses are getting involved in the action. Amazon makes its own products; Twitter censors blatant lies; Airbnb creates content.

The hands-off approach leaves too much to chance.

No doubt, Google still owns a lot of the pieces required to attract more engagement. The prize on offer is so significant that it will keep trying.

Facebook rakes in over $70 billion a year from ads and the new TikTok for Business platform will surely take off quickly.

YouTube remains a very strong performer for Google and has room for growth still. That would be compounded if Google could tie together its ecosystem with increased interaction from its all-powerful search engine.

It just can’t crack the social media formula.

YouTube Shorts is just one of many, unimaginative attempts to get in on the short-form action.

Another Facebook rival, à la Google+, is not on the cards. Instead, Google will trial light-touch apps that utilise its core strengths to tap into today’s zeitgeist, under the radar.

All of which helps to explain the furtive launch of Keen, from Alphabet’s Area 120 unit.

The review

The idea behind Keen is that it’s a place to explore your hobbies and projects. Yes, like Pinterest.

It’s available on browser here and on the Google Play store on Android devices.

To get started, the user specifies an interest on what Google is calling a ‘Keen’. Then, they set a few search queries that will run automatically and populate the ‘Explore’ tab.

These are my suggestions when I set up a Keen for smart cities:

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The suggested keywords offer a handy glimpse of how Google interprets the relationship between concepts.

I have the feeling it will also help Google understand what people are really looking for, beyond the traditional, direct search queries we tend to enter when we want to find a product. This is data it misses out on through its lack of a social network.

Keen then runs these queries (you can set a frequency for this) and pulls in new results to your ‘Explore’ tab.

If the user likes the result, they can hit the little ‘Gem’ button and it will be saved to their Keen.

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Once you have set up a few Keens, the homepage looks like this:

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Most of mine are pretty hi, tech. heavy, but I did sneak in a Keen about my new dog conundrum.

I only have one board on Pinterest and it’s about new dog ideas, so I thought this would make a handy comparison point. It’s what a scientist would do.

You can make the Keen public or private, plus you can invite people to join over Gmail:

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These are the first results I received once I set up my dog idea search queries:

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The first one is about breeding, but the others look good.

Thing is, if you click on the pictures they lead to external sites.

You could also just Google ‘dog ideas’ and get similar results. The benefit with Keen is that it blends multiple queries together into a topic for you instead.

Let’s see the Pinterest results, for direct comparison:

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Magic! Look at those faces.

The ‘Pins’ are native to the platform, so you can view them without going to another website. You can go to the site if you like, but most of the interaction happens on Pinterest.

Another option on Keen is to interact with boards other users have put together.

You can browse all manner of hobbies, from cocktail making to carpentry, and you can leave a comment if you so desire.


All in all, Keen is avowedly experimental and this makes it all the more interesting. It is far from a full, polished Pinterest rival and it seems unlikely that Google will want to invest heavily in a standalone social media app again.

Keen does, however, show us that Google is trialling new ways to use its search engine and machine learning technology.

The lessons learned here will surely feed into the main search experience. That’s where we will see a longer-term impact from this experiment.

They say: “It’s a home for your interests: a place to grow them, share them with loved ones and find things that will help in making this precious life count.”

We say: Pinterest, but Google.

Author of the world-famous I used to be with it, but then they changed what ‘it’ was.

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