Google has said nothing about its rumored social networking offering, but it may be that the company has just revealed its secret weapon to take on Facebook.  The new Priority Inbox feature in Gmail hints at social media’s next great battleground: Relevance!

Facebook itself inadvertently demonstrated the value of relevance and what is most wrong with the current Facebook user experience.  The Facebook Places announcement event two weeks ago was the geeky event you’d expect, but there was an unexpected moment of clarity and beauty in the midst of the typical discussion of APIs, partners and functionality.  Facebook VP Chris Cox told a story set in the future that defines the true promise that social networking has yet to fulfill:

“In 20 years our children will go to Ocean Beach and their phone will tell them this is the place their parents had their first kiss, and here’s the picture they took afterward, and here’s what their friends had to say.”

It’s a great story, isn’t it?  But today’s Facebook experience offers no chance this experience could actually occur.  Instead, here’s what would happen based on the current Facebook functionality:  Those kids will visit that beach and their parents’ precious story will be nowhere to be found on the Ocean Beach Places page.  That wonderful 20-year-old status update and picture will be buried under 500 pages of less meaningful messages such as “Don’t buy a hot dog from the snack bar,” “Here’s a picture of some hot babes I took here,” and “Beach kegger party this Saturday night, dudes!” 

The noise in social media is getting deafening.  In addition to the hundreds of friends we follow in Facebook, brands are putting the full-court press to capture user attention and “likes” in Facebook.  Not only can you “Like” JCPenney on Facebook, but you can also “like” their stores, JCPenney-sponsored concerts, a weekly store ad application, and a pair of Faux Leopard Fur Socks (plus every other item in their online catalog). 

It used to be that only social media professionals complained about the “drinking from social media firehouse”;  today, I am hearing more and more “Facebook fatigue” from average users.  Of course, few are turning away from social media; no behavior within Forrester’s Social Technographics ladder has grown as substantially in the past two years as that of “Joiners” — people who maintain a profile on a social network. 

More people, more apps, more Facebook-enabled sites, more places, more status updates — it all adds up to a cacophony of voices vying for our attention.  I recently missed a friend’s announcement of the birth of his child on Facebook — that important news was lost in an ocean of viral videos, places check-ins and summer vacation photo albums.

This is why the new Gmail feature may provide a hint at what is up Google’s social sleeve.  According to Google’s blog post, it launched Priority Inbox because people are “getting more and more mail and often feel overwhelmed by it.” (Sound familiar?)  Google adds, “Our inboxes are slammed with hundreds, sometimes thousands of messages a day…. It’s time-consuming to figure out what needs to be read and what needs a reply.”  (This isn’t a problem you have on Facebook and Twitter, is it?)

Gmail’s Priority Inbox doesn’t require users to set complex rules.  Instead, Gmail intuits what is important to users.  It can predict what you care about by observing the people you email the most, which messages you open, and to whom you reply. You can also click buttons to mark a conversation as important or not important. The new Gmail feature is meeting with great interest and approval — “Priority Inbox” became a Twitter trending topic within a day of Google’s announcement. 

Will Google tackle the problem (and opportunity) of relevance in social media?  If Google can make our inboxes more relevant, why not our Facebook and Twitter feeds? (Back in February, I predicted that Google Buzz would be a Relevance Filtering tool;  perhaps I wasn’t so much incorrect as I was premature.)  And make no mistake — Facebook understands that social tools need relevance to attract and retain users.  I expect 2011 to be the year of relevance in social media, and the winners will be the social applications that make our lives richer, not noisier.

What does this mean to marketers who are seeding millions of messages into social media every time someone uses a loyalty program, enters a Twitter hashtag sweepstakes, makes a purchase or “likes” a pair of JCPenney socks?  If a status update reaches a social network but no one sees it, does it exist?  My friend and associate Nate Elliot is working on a report about how marketers can overcome social media clutter. I’m anxious to see his recommendations, but this much is clear: In a future where being relevant will be vital, marketers must get people to have authentic conversations about products and services and not merely to click “Like” buttons or tweet hashtags.