Google+ – Believe the Hype
Google just celebrated the one year anniversary of its latest social networking endeavor, Google+. While proselytizers and critics armed with competing statistics argue both its success and failure, it is clear that Google+ is the centerpiece to an evolving social strategy that is guiding the development of many Google products. Skeptics site usage numbers compared with Facebook and Twitter to suggest Google+ is nothing but a mirage. Google claims 250 million accounts have been created and 150 million accounts are used monthly with 50 percent signing in daily. In contrast, Facebook boasts more than 900 million active users per month. One study cited in a recentWall St. Journal article claims users spent six to seven hours per month on Facebook, versus three minutes per month on Google+. While comparisons with the dominant social media sites, Facebook and Twitter, seem obvious, they overlook the real strategy behind Google+ and fail a simple apples-to-apples test.
It makes an easy and compelling narrative to suggest that Google launched Google+ as a competing social networking site to an ominous and growing threat from Facebook, Twitter, and other emerging social platforms and is desperately trying to catch up with the popularity of these properties. This fails to capture Google’s social strategy and the unique power inherent in the Google+ framework. As stated by Google social and mobile global marketing director Rikard Steiber, “Google+ is not another social destination, but it’s more sort of bringing a social layer to everything people are doing on Google already today.” They are striving to add social relevance to what billions of people are already using Google for: search, YouTube, Maps, Gmail, as well as future internal and third party development. This is a critical distinction – Google+ is not a destination on the web that relies on monetizing users while they are on the site therefore dependent on maintaining and increasing engagement.
Google is a company that has monetized its core service – search – by creating an ad platform that dominates the web; Google controls over 44 percent of global online ad revenues – Facebook controls 3.1%. They have recognized that in order to maintain and expand this advantage, they must harness people’s social, local and real time interactions into search results. Google+ is not a place to hangout, it is a structure and developing set of tools that enables Google to bring all the advantages of social into their existing, extremely profitable, framework. The threat they face is not external, from a social networking behemoth like Facebook, it is internal – failing to evolve their cash cow to incorporate the new social demands of their users.
This competition in the social space has important implications for all of the businesses currently, and soon to be, in awkward pursuit of getting me to “like” their Facebook page, follow them on Twitter, or say nice things about them on Yelp. As I detailed in a previous article, Google is strong-arming businesses both small and large into taking their social framework seriously, and already there are over one million brands with a presence on Google+. Research shows that social cues, recommendations, criticisms, and suggestions from peers have a far greater impact on our consumption patterns than advertising alone. It is estimated that over 70% of branded content online is user-generated. This is why all of the companies in the social space are hyper-focused on incorporating the likes, dislikes, suggestions and recommendations from our social networks into the content, advertising, and search results they are feeding us. There is a huge pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for any company that creates a user experience that fuses this seamlessly, elegantly and inoffensively.
From this perspective, it is hard to argue against Google having an immense advantage over its rivals. Rather than trying to develop ways to monetize the social behavior of their users, Google is faced with compelling its massive user base to use its Google+ framework to build a vibrant social foundation for their existing products and services. If Google is able to stay current with their users’ desires for social influence on the products and services they already rely on Google for, their potential to remain an overwhelmingly dominant and profitable force on the web for many years to come will be very difficult to challenge. Their search network alone answers over 3.2 billion queries a day – even a fraction of a percent of that traffic clicking on an ad, for pennies a click, yields significant revenue to build on.