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The Futurist

Will Google Plus fail or succeed in social over facebook?

Will google plus fail or succeed in social media over facebook?

You may have heard of Google+. It’s Google’s (latest) attempt to take on Facebook and at first glance it seems to be pretty good. If you haven’t seen it, go and check this out and then pop back here.

People who talk about social networking are debating whether Google+ can overcome Facebook and that's an interesting question with many angles to consider. Does Google have to beat Facebook to succeed? Is Google+ the Facebook competitor it seems to be? Is Google attacking or defending? 

To explore what it will take for Google to succeed in social, lets first try to define success without cheapening the discussion with talk of money. In the many markets that Google competes in, success can be considered as the product of userbase and attention: that is to say the number of people using your service and the length of time they spend using it. The scale of a market can be as significant as market share: the smaller slice of a larger pie. Google Search is of course successful as it’s hugely dominant and everyone does it, even though attention is low. You only use search for a few seconds at a time but several billion searches a day really add up. Android is also very successful. It’s market share is only on a par with it’s great competitor iOS, not as dominant as Google Search, but mobile is a big and growing market and you give a lot more attention to your phone than to a search engine. Gmail and Docs are reasonably successful too. Nowhere near the scale or share of Search and Android but these users spend all day in their email and spreadsheets so they are valuable to Google.

Social is slightly different to these other markets. Attention is something of a given: if users are serious about a social network they spend significant time there. Market scale is always important but in this game market share has particular significance. Niche social networks (eg Instagram, Foursquare, GetGlue) thrive in smaller markets while general social networks (Facebook and Twitter) address a massive market. To be successful all of them need a large market share for the network effect, that social gravity that attracts more and more users and provides growing value to the existing userbase. 

For Google+ to be successful then it definitely needs a large market share. How can it take on incumbents who already have that significant market share? Facebook beat Myspace through innovation. In a recent interview, Shaun Parker (the first president of Facebook) said that if Myspace had just copied every innovation that Facebook made it would have won, because it had by far the bigger market share. Facebook won’t make the same mistake that Myspace did, in fact Facebook has already taken the first step to counter Google+ Hangouts feature this week with the launch of it’s Skype integration.

It’s not enough to expect waves of disgruntled Facebook users to migrate over to Google+ because Facebook will just be nicer to users when it has to be. This won’t be the end of Facebook. So what can Google do to supplant Facebook? The simple answer is it needs to do things that Facebook can’t copy. These strategies could be organised into two broad categories: those that are beyond the means of Facebook to copy and those that Facebook can’t copy because it would be damaging to their business model.

Leverage resources that Facebook doesn’t have

On mobile, Facebook is an app not a platform. They don’t have the benefit of thousands of third party developers enriching Facebook on mobile like they do on their website. Google has Android and Android does have thousands of third party mobile developers. If Google+ can become a viable app platform then there could be considerable crossover and leverage with Android. This is a very real threat and one Facebook is well aware of. There are strong rumours of Facebook producing their own phone and even their own app store for iPhone.

Search is the jewel in Google’s crown but lately that has come under threat from Discovery. This is when your friends on Facebook find something interesting and share it, or their recommendations lead you to a product. Discovery is a key point of value for social networks but as the network gets larger and more connected interesting things are drowned out by crap and Discovery loses value. If Google can apply their superior Search knowledge (and tech and talent and patents) to significantly improve the quality of Discovery then that could provide real value and differentiate Google+ from Facebook.

Gmail and Google apps users are quite a loyal crowd. Google+ has launched with a strong and hip marketing push but really Google isn’t that cool. If the frontal attack on Facebook proves ineffective, this audience could be a beach head. Gmail and apps are already social to an extent. If you’ve ever collaborated on a spreadsheet with someone on the other side of the world you have experienced social business. Enriching Gmail and apps with social tools such as the Circles of Google+ could make Apps and Gmail more socially useful and valuable. This strategy may relegate Google to a niche social network but then again Microsoft has done OK for a while with Office.

Go places that Facebook can't follow

Fundamentally Facebook and Google sell the same product. That product is us. They sell us to advertisers. That’s how Google competes so well with Microsoft and Apple. They give away for free things that their competitors expect to be paid for and then collect the ongoing advertising revenue. But they can’t hurt Facebook that way because Facebook uses the same model. So what would hurt Facebook?

Facebook is fiercely protective of their product. They don’t want you escaping from their walled garden. Perhaps Google can use this to their advantage. If Google can position itself to sit above Facebook and other social networks, become the bridge for a user between their different networks and help them connect with friends across all those networks, they have an opportunity to win without directly competing. Google+ could become a platform for social networks. More than just seeing your friends posts and checkins from other networks, being able to interact with them across all these networks in one place would differentiate them significantly.

Google had an embryonic attempt at integrating Social with their real time search. This functionality integrated live Twitter search results into their regular search. When Google+ launched, real time search suddenly disappeared. It’s been suggested that Twitter and Google need to renegotiate an agreement to access all those tweets but it is coincidental timing. Are the negotiations stuck on integration within Google+? Google has already integrated some of their own services (Buzz, Gtalk, Picassa) into Google+. If they could integrate Facebook too that could be game over but maybe they don’t really need Facebook. The more niche social networks they can integrate, the more their combined gravity would diminish Facebook.

Google will not succeed by trying to build a better Facebook. They may take a slice of Facebook’s market share but the stakes are higher than that. This is a giant pie but a small slice won’t satisfy them. If they can leverage their immense Search expertise and marry it with Discovery in a way that transcends or aggregates other social networks, that would be real success.

Google gestalt.

This is not an exhaustive list of Google’s possible strategies. What do you think their strategy is? Do you think the strategies touched on here could succeed? Has their time passed? Can they get back on top?

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