Sergey Brin, a Google founder, takes issue with people who say Google has failed to gain a foothold in social networking. Google has had successes, he often says, especially with Orkut, the dominant service in Brazil and India.
Brin might soon have to revise his answer.
Facebook, the social network service that started in a Harvard dorm room just six years ago, is growing at a dizzying rate around the globe, surging to nearly 500 million users, from 200 million users just 15 months ago.
With his typical self-confidence, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's 26-year-old chief executive, recently said it was "almost guaranteed" that the company would reach a billion users.
The rapid ascent of Facebook has no company more worried than Google, which sees the social networking giant as a threat on multiple fronts. Much of the activity on Facebook is invisible to Google's search engine, which makes it less useful over time. What's more, the billions of links posted by users on Facebook have turned the social network into an important driver of users to sites across the Web. That has been Google's role.
Google has tried time and again to break into social networking not only with Orkut, but also with user profiles, with an industrywide initiative called OpenSocial and, most recently, with Buzz, a social network that mixes elements of Facebook and Twitter with Gmail. But none of those initiatives have made a dent in Facebook.
Google is said to be trying again with a secret project for a service called Google Me, according to several reports. Google declined to comment for this article.
With nearly two-thirds of all Internet users in the United States signed up on Facebook, the company has focused on international expansion.
Just over two years ago, Facebook was available only in English. The task of expanding the site overseas fell on Javier Olivan, a 33-year-old Spaniard who joined Facebook three years ago, when the site had 30 million users.
But with 300,000 words on Facebook's site - not counting material posted by users - the task was immense. Facebook not only encouraged users to translate parts of the site, but also let other users fine tune those translations or pick among multiple translations. Nearly 300,000 users participated.
The effort paid off. Now about 70 percent of Facebook's users are outside the United States.
With Facebook's social networking lead growing, it is not clear whether Google, or any other company, will succeed in derailing its march forward.
Says Danny Sullivan, the editor of Search Engine Land, an industry blog: "Google can't even get to the first base of social networks, which is people interacting with each other, much less to second or third base, which is people interacting with each other through games and applications."