Google Makes Another Play for the Social Web

Can the Search Giant Turn Its World Social? Its Future May Depend on It

By Published on . 7

Google sorted out the web and made it searchable; can it also create the connections between people that are making it social?

Google's latest attempt -- in development for more than a year -- was unveiled today as Google+, and offered to a select group of journalists and analysts who will be able to share photos, links and status updates.

The major difference between Facebook and Google+ is that instead of having a massive friend list, users collect each other into groups, such as family, work and friends, called "circles." This context has been missing from Facebook and has gotten some people in hot water -- for example, those who post their wild weekend party photos that may be seen by family and colleagues. And on Google+, there are no friend requests. People do not need to agree to be friends with one another and can view updates without sharing their own.

While executives declined to say what their are doing with Google+ when it comes to advertising -- for example, will brands be able to create "circles"? -- they did say that +1, an icon launched recently that is now integrated into Google+, is operating with ads. The +1 service allows users to click on the icon, indicating they like that search result. Google+ follows the search company's failed attempts at the social web -- Buzz and Orkut -- and could be a huge deal for Google if people are willing to participate in yet another social network.

But the bigger play here is to harness the data about human connections generated by the social web and apply that to search and even display advertising. The rise of Facebook meant that a lot of this emerging activity was taking place inside a walled garden that was largely invisible to Google.

"Google rose to prominence because the web became open and they made it sourceable and discoverable, so this is a preemptive strike on Google's part," said Steven Rubel, exec VP-global strategy and insights for Edelman, explaining that as people spend more time inside walled gardens such as Facebook and mobile apps, Google loses its power to search and monetize that walled-off content. "Now they have a leg in the game in a world where people spend less and less time on the web."

Mr. Rubel may be right. While Google continues to be one of the most visited sites -- ComScore showed 180 million people visiting a Google property in May -- Facebook is catching up. But Facebook users spent an average of 375 minutes on the site during May -- close to 3 hours more than the 231 minutes they spent on Google.

Google+ will give Google a place for users to create their own content -- the stuff we're used to because of Facebook -- such as user conversations, their photos and the links they share, plus group text messaging and video chat. Since it belongs to Google, it will all be searchable and monetizable -- just the way Google likes it.

While people are not in immediate danger of losing the searchable, open web, the phenomenon can occur slowly over the next decade as mobile and apps become more and more dominant in how users consume information. "It's like a receding hairline," Mr. Rubel said. "You look in the mirror when you're 29 and think, 'Oh, it's not that bad' and wake up at 40 looking like Kojak."

Google executives said that getting social information on their users will improve Google products across the board -- by allowing personalization. Most of Google's most popular products such as search, maps and YouTube do not require a login, which limits what Google knows about its users.

But social has never been Google's bag. "It would take a seismic shift for people to take their social stuff to Google," said Deep Focus CEO and founder Ian Schafer, who said that the real earth-shattering use for Google+ is in mobile, not social networking. "The biggest implication for Google+ is mobile," Mr. Schafer said. "For example, for people to be creating content wherever people are and using that to deliver messages to them and close the loop on sales. The promise of Google+ is closing the loop on social CRM."

For advertisers and brands, the potential is immense. "A connection made with a brand in Google+ can eventually be tracked to a purchase," Mr. Schafer said. "If we can create relevant brand engagements with people and give them an ability to purchase the product at a later date -- whether that 's three, six or 18 months later -- this brings us back to social ROI."

Indeed, metrics and analytics is one area where Facebook falls behind Google when it comes to advertising. When asked what she'd like to see from Facebook, Coca-Cola's head of integrated marketing and communications Wendy Clark said she wanted a good way to measure social media success.

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