In Opinion

Google + LogoDoes the world really need another opinion on Google+?

I doubt it, but I’m sharing mine anyway!

The initial headlines had Google+ down as a “facebook killer”, but already the lustre has worn off for some who can’t see what it offers that is new and distinctive.  So is Google+ here to stay, or will it vanish without trace?

I usually avoid writing about matters which others are far better qualified to comment on, but I feel a lot of the recent discussion around Google+ in the mainstream media rather misses the point, and I’d like to share my views.

I think the most important single fact that gives Google+ an opportunity to succeed is the existing user base.  That sounds contrary for a new product, but I think Google has long had a strategy to “own” the online life of the average user.

GMail  was perhaps the first major inflection point, where Google graduated from search into being a key component of personal infrastructure online.  I don’t use GMail, but I know plenty of people who do.  Associated with GMail came a contact manager and Google Calendar.  Each is widely used, and the dawn of the Android era means that more people than ever are using these services to share data with their
phone.   Picasa was another attempt to own a piece of peoples online life through photo editing and sharing for the non-photoshop-user masses, and Google Groups are widely used by clubs and informal associations of many sorts (as is Calendar).  Google Apps is a bold attempt to take our documents online.  Around all these offerings there is a unified login structure (putting the mess around paid Google Apps and GMail accounts to one side) with a centralised profile manager intended to make individuals searchable online.

This is what Google is today, and it has its fair share of missed opportunities in there too.  Wave was launched with huge hype, and appears to have vanished without trace.  Google Buzz is apparently still around, but has completely passed me by.  This is another key point about Google – not only can it afford to experiment  – experimenting is in its DNA.  Google engineers are encouraged to have side projects which occupy 20% of their time, and most new Google products come from these “20% time projects”.  Of course a huge number of “20% time projects” fail utterly too – but failure is a vital part of the learning process.

When I first created my Facebook account, very few of my friends were on the site.  There was no way to import my address book.  It didn’t connect to other sites.  It was a long time until it was useful to me.  Any new social network will need to overcome these hurdles – how does it get to the critical mass of users and features needed to make it useful fora cost that investors are prepared to foot?  Well Google has huge  financial resources, but it also doesn’t face this problem.  As soon as I created a Google+ account it showed me all the contacts from my Android phone and who was already on there.  My profile was largely completed, and I
had the opportunity to integrate existing Picasa albums.  As a result it was very quick for me to get going and build a profile and network that was “useful”.  This is why I believe that most users of existing Google
services will create a Google+ account and play with it.

Many will lose interest, agreeing with the naysayers that it doesn’t offer much that they need, but unlike other emerging social networks they won’t abandon their account.  They will continue to use Picasa, GMail and other associated services and as Google+ integration increases, they will find themselves updating their Google+ information and profile without even realising it.  Products like Google Groups could merge almost entirely with Google+, quietly pulling another cohort of users in.

A a new network it isn’t as rich in features or integration as the major incumbents like Facebook and LinkedIn, however I think it builds on the work these platforms have done with features like Circles that let you separate work colleagues from drinking buddies and family from acquaintances, and it is hard to doubt that Google have the ability to add features very rapidly if they choose to, and can afford to work by experiment –
implementing a lot and keeping what works.  Google could even let the “Google+” brand die quietly if there is enough negative comment, but don’t bet against more social offerings from Google which will make use of the information already created in Google+ because Google need to be in the social space to grow – possibly even to survive.  They can afford to play a long game to achieve that.  Google does not even need to replace Facebook (they have never claimed Google+ was a Facebook killer – that hype was created by the
media) and they may well be able to find a distinctive space to co-exist with the big incumbents – I already have a Facebook and LinkedIn account which I view in a unified way with TweetDeck, adding Google+ to that mix isn’t a particularly fanciful idea.

In addition to the culture and resources of the company, Google has another key advantage that is easy to underestimate.  Google has advertising in its blood.  It wasn’t born that way, but it has been hugely successful in advertising and pretty much any business serious about online advertising uses Google advertising for at least part of its campaign.  For a long time they have been making their adverts more targeted when they appear in Apps or GMail, and collecting user data (including search patterns and location) to deliver better advertising performance.

Facebook is relatively a new kid on the block in the advertising world, and its very hard to judge their performance as they are extremely secretive about their finances.  There is strong anecdotal evidence that Facebook advertising is successful for some businesses, but there are also many who run campaigns that prove not to be cost effective and quickly abandon the platform.  While the jury is still out on Facebook as an advertising platform, there is a huge opportunity for Google.

 Will Google+ kill Facebook?  I very much doubt it in the short term, but taking a longer view I think this is Google’s first mature step into the social space and I am convinced they are here to stay.  Google+ as an individual product and brand may succeed or fail, but I think it is at least as  important an inflection point as the launch of GMail and will form the basis of big things to come.

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