With the rise of social networking businesses large and small, it’s clear that “social” is no longer a Generation-Y fad. Sure, “social” can be used as just another marketing buzzword like “green” and “low calorie,” but its impact has changed how we use the internet. Google desperately knows it must get social right in order to retain their crown as King of The Web from Facebook and other competitors. CEO Larry Page stressed this in a company-wide memo stating that all Google bonuses will go up or down 25% depending on their success in social. Now that Google+ is here, should Facebook feel threatened or is Google spreading itself too thin? And what are the implications for Android and the greater technology world?
The main feature that differentiates Google+ from Facebook is Circles [demo]. Here, Googlers attack the silent truth about Facebook: We’re not friends with everyone we’re “friends” with. This leads to awkward and redundant oversharing or neglecting to share anything at all due to privacy or spamming concerns. In reality, your friends list is more of an all-the-people-you’ve-ever-met list.
The concept of Circles isn’t entirely new, though. A fantastic slideshow, “The Real Life Social Network” by ex-Googler Paul Adams, was showcased last year illustrating how social networking on Facebook is completely wrong when compared to our real lives. It’s a little long (but extremely insightful) and breaks down why Circles works before it ever existed. Jet yourself to slide 173 for the conclusion if brevity is more your thing. Where does Paul Adams work now? Facebook.
While Google+ has been a hit with early adopters, it’s met its fair share of criticism with some noting how tedious the process of “circle-management” will prove to be. Personally, I think these concerns arise out of pure laziness because in the end Circles makes our lives easier and Google will surely evolve the UI and any (possibly controversial?) algorithms to suit our management needs. I think the real concern is relevance, outlined nicely by Martin Bryant of The Next Web who also looks towards algorithms.
Looking at the big picture, this break from an all-encompassing friends list has been part of a larger social networking trend. One example of that is Path for iPhone and Android – a social network where your friends list is limited to 50 people, making it private and intimate in nature. This movement is what Jason Schwartz, cofounder of Matchbook, calls “classy social sharing.”
“The age of social sharing [and broadcasting everything] has pretty much reached its end…Social interactions online aren’t like the real world at all…Having all of your friends see everything is the old way of doing social..The new way is, ‘Who do you REALLY want to share information with?’ There are only a couple of people whose opinions you really trust, and you don’t want the noise of everyone else drowning them out.”
Everyone knows the story of Facebook – it started as a social network for college students and grew to a mammoth network for everyone. This model is broken because all our online friends aren’t just college students anymore and makes sharing inappropriate and frankly, annoying at times. Facebook has their friends lists and groups feature, but the problem is it’s not baked into the DNA of Facebook. That would be the news feed, as lists and groups are shoved to the side. Even if they were more prominent, they’re not very user friendly to begin with.
Facebook is no doubt working on an upgrade to how groups and/or lists work, especially with Paul Adams working there. While Facebook is inching towards 700 million users (!) worldwide, it’s losing users in the US and Canada partly due to these issues. Some people will prefer to live in absolute public and some will use both networks, albeit differently. What we don’t know is how fast Google+ will grow and if Facebook’s needed changes will be enough to stiff-arm Google by the time they arrive.
Google’s new social network includes other neat features such as Hangouts, but I won’t be giving a full feature walkthrough in this post. Design is the next Google+ topic I’ll tackle, which plays a much larger role than you might originally think. As a company that traditionally focuses on function rather than form, it was a pleasant surprise for all to see that Google+ is beautifully crafted from top to bottom. The credit can be assigned to Andy Hertzfield, a key designer for the original Macintosh software team. Google+ launched a new design initiative for Google anchored by focus, elasticity, and effortlessness.
Google’s homepage, Gmail, and Google Calendar all have refreshed designs that fit this model. With these new design principles, Google is promoting and branding an ecosystem that even Apple fanboys will appreciate. If you haven’t already noticed, there’s a new black toolbar at the top of every Google site. I wasn’t a fan of it at first, but I do like the direction Google is taking it. This is where your Google+ notifications will live, bringing a little piece of the social network everywhere you go. Hopefully this will make the +1 button, Google’s answer to Facebook’s “like,” worth the pixels on the screen.
There’s an Android Google+ app available and an iPhone version on the way, but what if it gets completely baked into Android? And then into Chrome? It ends up looking like a mashup of Apple’s “one look and feel” strategy and Microsoft’s “put everything we make into Windows” strategy except Windows is substituted for search. Put plainly, Google just raised the stakes in an all-out platform war for the web between them and Facebook. What makes this even more interesting are the other players involved.
Facebook’s relationship with Microsoft will most likely strengthen – Bing already has permission from Facebook to integrate its social graph within Bing’s search results which give it a unique social advantage over Google. Facebook will help fuel Bing’s growth, whose market share currently sits at 30% of the search market. The day Facebook gives up its social graph to be indexed on Google is the day Steve Jobs allows Flash on iOS. So of course, Google is going solo. They even let their real-time search deal with Twitter expire because they don’t need to piggyback on Twitter’s social services anymore.
The sour relationship between Facebook and Apple definitely does not help in limiting Google’s own growth. If Google+ is a hit, it gives Google an extremely unique advantage in the Android/iOS war. This puts Facebook in an awkward position because it depends on mobile to grow. The Google+ app is already being called Android’s first killer app due to its extremely tight integration and I completely agree on its potential to sell devices. I’m happily entrenched in Apple’s ecosystem, but I can certainly see myself going Android in a year or two if Google’s strategy is executed correctly.
Facebook and Apple should rebuild bridges and become allies, but with rumors of a Facebook music service on the way and the resulting friction between the growing Facebook Credits system and the iTunes ecosystem, it seems unlikely that the two arrogant CEOs would work together. With that said, the enemy of your enemy is your friend and I suggest they strategize accordingly. Unless, of course, Facebook and Apple have even larger plans in the works…but that’s a post for another day.
Google seems to be doing everything nowadays, prompting an antitrust investigation by the Federal Trade Commission. Their public response stated they “do what’s best for the user,” and while that may be true on the surface (“We do what’s best to sell ads” would be more accurate), it’s also not the strongest case. I wouldn’t be surprised if this starts a debate on what exactly “search” implies for Google.
Coming full circle, the Google+ name makes more sense (though it’s still clumsy). It’s Google with a social layer, an “extension of the Google experience.” The search giant is downplaying their service, calling it a “project,” but it’s clear that there are much larger intentions. The website seems to be a hit with early adopters, but will Google make a dent on Facebook’s dominance? Facebook will sprint to roll out changes to its (soon to be) 700-million-member strong network to persuade the masses to stay on their servers. Facebook has been playing this game all along, borrowing the real-time news feed from Twitter, Places from check-in pioneer Foursquare, and Deals from Groupon – just to name a few. They already have an unofficial plug-in that mimics Google Circles.
Most tech giants (including Google) squash smaller competitors or borrow features from one another to sustain growth, but Google is no small competitor. I don’t think Google+ will ever match the ubiquity of Facebook and yes, maybe it’s just for geeks. This is all dependent on the success of Google+ and whatever the outcome may be, I’m thrilled for the new competition as it will surely make for an exciting ride.