Our Take On Google+
Last week Google launched Google+, their anticipated social network intended to compete directly with Facebook. Currently in closed beta, Google+ represents Google’s latest effort in what has been up to now an illustrious history of social media missteps. Having learnt from its past failures in social, Google+ is not just a tack-on product like Google Buzz or Google Wave, but rather an extension of Google itself, deeply integrating with the rest of the Google universe. While it is still way too early to pass judgement on Google+, this post will examine the platform on a granular level, drawing implications on what Google+ means for social media.
When talking about Google+, its important to understand that the platform is in its infancy (both in adoption and in functionality). Google+ project leads Vic Gundotra and Bradley Horowitz have explicitly said that this launch is just a first step, and that they will be rolling out additional features and functionality in the future. As a result, it would be presumptuous to either dismiss Google+ outright, or alternativley proclaim it a Facebook killer. Ultimately, how Google leverages its vast existing capabilities and infrastructure on the web will determine Google+’s success or failure.
Our first impressions of Google+ have been generally positive. Breaking with Google tradition, Google+ is aesthetically pleasing, with an interface that is much more intuitive than Facebook. With years of exposure to Facebook, people sometimes forget that from a user experience point of view Facebook is a mess. This is a big win for Google+, and could potentially attract new users of social media to its platform. It will be interesting to see how Google+ manages to maintain great experiences for users as they scale up in size and feature selection.
The Stream in Google+ is a point of parity with Facebook’s news feed, but has the additional functionality of allowing a user to share out content to specific “Circles” of contacts (we’ll come back to this). This stands in stark contrast to Facebook, whose privacy settings allow you to share content with friends, friends of friends or everyone. These rigid content sharing filters lack the flexibility and interchangeability that Google+ provides.
Currently, the bulk of Google+ early adopters post all content publicly, foregoing their Circles. Due to the fact that Google+ has such a small user base, people are just dying for any type of interaction to occur. For example, my stream is mostly populated with photos from Google co-founder Sergey Brin skydiving. This is a clear indication that Google+ has a long way to go before it has a critical mass of users large enough that its Circle functionality (which is the underlying value proposition of the entire platform) actually begins to be used properly. With the amount of hype and media attention Google+ has commanded in the past week, opening up the flood gates and allowing anyone to register would make for a much more engaging experience.
As it has been alluded to thus far, what really makes Google+ different from Facebook is the Circles feature. This divergent philosophy of content sharing will appeal to many, such as those persons not wanting to become the next Anthony Weiner. However, this promotion of quasi digital tribalism is not without some issues. Having such tight control over who sees your content makes Google+ lack a certain “serendipity” factor. One of the amazing things about social networks like Facebook and Twitter is the discovery of interesting content and interesting people through the stream. For marketers, this is how things go viral. Secondly, this idea of segmented content sharing can be duplicated (Facebook has this functionality already, albeit crude in execution). This is problematic because it would not be very difficult for Facebook to revamp its friend list functionality and provide an experience equivalent to Circles. Within a week of Google+’s launch, Facebook engineers unofficially created Circle Hack, replicating the Circles experience almost completely. It would be easy for Facebook to institute this feature officially, leaving very little in the way of differentiating factors for Google+ moving forward.
Google+’s notification system, embedded in the new black toolbar follows you whereever you go in the Google universe. Whether you are using Gmail, Google docs, Google maps etc. you will see new notifications. This promotes users to check back into Google+ frequently and is the definition of what the network is intended to be, an extension of Google itself. Don’t be surprised if this functionality gets baked into YouTube in the near future, and even a deep integration with Google Chrome makes sense. Facebook might have 750M+ users, but Google still owns the lion share of search users, and this blanket integration of Google+ leverages Google’s existing infrastructure quite convincingly. Despite being a very late player in social media, Google+ may be able to gain significant traction if it continues to leverage its assets in this fashion.
Google+ has issues, both small and large. It has lots of small kinks to work out, such as letting users with Google Apps accounts access the platform. Then it has huge challenges such as not having first mover advantage in social media and currently lacking the infrastructure to monetize like Facebook does. And at the end of the day, Facebook is intrenched as the sole social network in an incredibly large number of peoples lives, and has over several years built a social infrastructure that Google just doesn’t have. How many social networks can a person meaningfully engage on? LinkedIn already exists for professional applications – Twitter represents another outlet for social engagement as well. People are going to have to feel compelled to use Google+ not just in conjunction with Facebook but instead of Facebook. Some serious legwork will need to be done to get the necessary traction and critical mass to achieve this.
All of these issues are contextualized against a very public beta launch that has drawn a lot of publicity. If Google intends to roll out Google+ slowly, who knows how long people will wait. The longer Google goes without a full public release, the more time Facebook has to match their product offering, and the more difficult it will be for Google+ to take off. For instance, today Facebook released video chat powered by Skype. While not as impressive as Google+’s “Hangout” group video chat feature, it will likely be enough for many users. While the timing of Facebook’s product announcement may be a coincidence, its a clear indication that Facebook it not going to stand idly by as Google+ carves a niche in the social media space.
In conclusion, Google+ is Google’s most exciting and impressive social media effort to date. Only time will tell if Google has finally cracked social in a meaningful way with Google+, and if the platform has the potential to disrupt Facebook’s incumbent status in social media.