Google+ is gaining users faster than any social network ever before. After many stumbles, Google has finally built a social network that delivers value to consumers. That makes Google+ a bigger competitor to Facebook than anything we've seen.
So far, a lot of Google+ coverage has debated its value, and examined the network from a consumer and tactical standpoint. Less scrutinized is the way the launch of Google+ could end up enhancing the competitive positioning and value of Google's search business, giving it an unprecedented view of consumer interest, social graph, intent data and conversion data.
What you want vs. what you like
The biggest difference between Google and Facebook right now is that thanks to search intent data, Google knows what consumers want. Facebook, on the other hand, has a very clear understanding of what users like and who they know. Google+ is the first step for Google to close this gap. It aims to build out a complete profile of Google's users, giving Google access to profile data, likes, interests, and friends.
Google+ integrates across all of Google's products to make sharing easier and more relevant, but also to add value to Google search. If Google can incorporate data from the social graph to deliver more relevant results, it will have a product competitive with Bing's Facebook integration . This is of critical importance in order for Google to maintain search market share and growth by improving relevancy and personalization of search results vs. the aggressive challenger Bing.
In my opinion, Google is interested primarily in building user profile data to deliver more relevant and personalized search results with better, more relevant advertising. Studying Google+ and collecting even more consumer data empowers the company to integrate its data for a better consumer experience and advertising across all their products, from search to social to mobile and even to email.
Engagement and ROI
One major issue with Google+ is the absence of brand and corporate pages. If Google wants to compete with Facebook, these pages are crucial. Facebook works as an advertising platform because it goes far beyond traditional display. Rather, it's an engagement platform where brands and advertisers interact with consumers.
Adding brand pages to Google+ will finally give Google a branding engagement platform. Right now, Google's big revenue business is search, which relies on clicks to measure ROI and advertising success, whereas Google+ can offer a branding platform where the campaign goal is engagement rather than immediate ROI.
Once brand pages are launched and populated, the next logical step is to build an ad platform that encourages engagement and incorporates the social graph. With this, brands can appeal to consumers by using interest data -- the things consumers say they actually like -- just as we see on Facebook. The difference is that Google can target ads based on consumer intent data, at a higher level of relevancy than is possible on Facebook. An engagement model based on social and search intent data will improve the efficiency and efficacy of social advertising, in terms of both relevancy and performance.
Keys to success
One thing lost in Google+'s rapid growth is the importance of user engagement and time spent. Success in social networking is not determined by total number of users. Twitter has tons of registered users, but a very small percentage is responsible for the majority of activity. Google+ must regularly engage consumers, or the content loses relevancy and thus its power as a branding tool. Without broad and regular participation, scale and frequency (and successful advertising) become impossible.
The key to Facebook's success is not just the social interest and social graph data, but the tremendous amount of time users spend on the network. That time creates the advertising opportunities. The ultimate measure of success would be for Google+ to become the first social network consumers visit when they go online. It's a similar obstacle in search, where Google owns 65 percent of the market, compared to Yahoo's 15 percent. Being second place is far different from being the industry leader, and Google is already late to the social game.
Google+ has several other demerits, which is to be expected for a brand new product. The system doesn't recognize corporate Gmail addresses, a fact that agitates against its "easy-to-use" premise, especially for corporate Gmail power users. Google is also pushing the limits of data and privacy, given its recent FTC investigation. Consumers should be concerned about giving too much personal, professional and social data to one entity, and Google is already collecting data on search queries, mining usage data across its networks, purchasing data from third parties, collecting conversion data from Google analytics, taking impression and click data from its Doubleclick ad-serving product. Thanks to Google+, it will soon also know what you do, who you are, and who you know. That's frightening from a consumer standpoint, especially if Google+ becomes the top social network.
There's also the chance that Google could stretch itself too thin. This moment is oddly reminiscent of the time that Yahoo tried to become a portal, a search engine, and everything at once. Ultimately it diluted its brand and its position in the industry. Social networking is Facebook's core business, and it has a massive head start and loyalty from all the core demographics.
But we've seen Google topple web titans before, so Google+ unseating Facebook is not outside the realm of possibility. The biggest and most important aspect of Google+ is that Facebook is no longer the only channel on TV worth watching. Strong competition leads to innovation, and a Facebook/Google+ battle will lead to a better consumer social networking experience, as well as improved advertising results and options. Google+ has value, and we look forward to further developments, innovation and continued growth.