UPDATE (Jul 15, 5:30pm): Facebook is rumored to be in talks with news sources for a news-related feature of their own. Looks like I may have been a little early in saying that social news wasn't something Facebook could copy, but this just confirms my predictions of competition-fueled innovation.
Today, Google has announced - and released - a new Google News feature for US readers: Google Badges. Put simply, as we read Google News articles, we will earn achievement-like "badges" based on the subjects we read about, which can be shared with other users. It's not terribly exciting on its own, I'll admit that much. It might be an amusing side feature for those who still use Google News, though I get most of my news via RSS and Twitter these days. What's important here are the implications of this move, and what it suggests for future Google plans.
After all, Google has removed a few features in recent weeks, such as the social Realtime Search and the Maps traffic estimation. Long-known impending features like Google Offers continue to go through beta testing. Of course, it's hard to forget the freshly-launched Google+ social networking system. But this News addon feels different, somehow.
Rather than a standalone feature or a News addon, it seems to me to be a way to integrate Google News with Google Plus. They're not being too loud about it yet, but the intent is clear. Although the sharing options don't appear to be implemented yet, it's obviously a way to make a "single-player" news service into a social experience by recording your news preferences and giving you the option to post them to Plus.
Now, the thing that's likely going to strike a chord with a lot of people, given the G+ discussion so far, is the fact that this is something that Facebook doesn't do! And unlike Circles and Hangouts, this sort of news integration is something that Facebook can't really do without extensive modifications to their service, because Facebook doesn't have a news aggregation service. Even though it's a pretty boring feature, Google finally has what the blogosphere would call a "Facebook Killer" - something unique that Facebook and the other social media sites can't just copy for themselves.
What gets me more interested, however, is that other ways to socially integrate Google services are almost certainly in the pipes. Are we going to see more badges? Almost certainly. Reader badges, Books badges, Youtube badges; six months from now, I wouldn't be surprised if I get badges for reading my email. A Foursquare-like integration of badges and Maps is definitely a likely service as well.
But what else is coming? Google has done a LOT of experimentation in the social universe, and they didn't knock it out of the park with Plus just so they could turn around and add achievements to everything. They've got to have something more interesting in the works...but with the wide variety of Google services available, the vast amount of data we push through Google's services every day, and the versatility of the G+ stream, there's no telling what they might have come up with. While they've certainly gotten to an underwhelming start, I think it's time to break out the crystal balls and 8-balls and start guessing at what their bigger plans in the shadows are.
Of course, since privacy is a major concern, I should note that the badges are only earned if you have Google Web History turned on (allowing Google to track you), and are kept private by default. They aren't shared unless you expressly choose to share them, and they don't show your actual article history or anything. As a result, the only people that can see your badges are yourself, Google, and anybody else you choose to share them with. No Facebook-style flubs here, your data seems as secure as it is on any OTHER Google service. Whether that's actually secure or not is something I'll save for an upcoming article on privacy and anonymity in the world of social media - it's a whopper of a subject, and this post would quickly grow into an essay if I began talking about it here.