Jun 2nd, 2011

We’ve seen Google make a ton of failed forays into the social scene: Remember Google Buzz, Google Wave, Google Knol, Orkut and other ominously hopeful attempts? Yesterday they were joined in hope by Google +1, and while many are saying that it too will fail, I believe Google has a SERIOUS opportunity here. But it’s an opportunity they could just as easily squander. We’ve seen that before.

What is Google +1?


For the unfamiliar, +1 is Google’s version of the Facebook “Like” button. Any page on the internet can be “liked” and webmasters across the globe can add “+1” buttons to their content, allowing visitors to easily like and share content they deem valuable.

The Wave of Buzz Before +1

There is one crucial difference between Google’s launch of +1 and previous services like Buzz and Wave. Think about the unique proposition of the past products. Google Buzz allowed you to “shout” comments to other Buzz users based on physical locations. Google Wave allowed you to communicate with other Wave users based on a “Next Gen E-Mail” concept. Google Knol attempted to collect in-depth reviews from users to create a Wikipedia competitor. Heck, Google even launched their own social network with Orkut allowing you to connect with a closed circle of friends.

All of these have three key elements in common:

  1. The initial strategy starts and ends with providing an awesome service to the end user
  2. The concept doesn’t properly reach it’s potential if critical mass don’t buy into the idea
  3. If momentum dies… so does the idea

With all of Google’s immensely popular services, with their ridiculous reach and clout, you’d think they could leverage good, new ideas into instant success. Not quite. With Buzz and Wave, Google learned they could influence a large number of people to try something new. But if all their friends weren’t using the service, what’s the point? Both services quickly lost their luster with Wave becoming (NSFW) little more than a novelty/comedy act and Buzz falling into disfavor due to privacy concerns. Although you can get users to try something new once or even many times, creating habits and changing existing habits is a completely different ballgame.

The Fatal Flaws

Facebook isn’t a social network with brilliantly original ideas. When MySpace was still successful (if you can remember that far back), any idiot could have created their own social network that did very similar things. Why was Facebook the juggernaut success story?

It isn’t just about Facebook being a great product. Lots of companies create great products. But is it a great product, in the right place, at the right time, under the right circumstances, in the right environment, and marketed correctly? Facebook enjoyed the perfect storm of momentum, growing organically and somehow fueling itself into the figurative snowball that became an avalanche of success.

Google, on the other hand, (with Buzz/Wave) built what they considered to be the perfect products, flipped the switch, and expected all the moths to flock to the light. I’m being a bit harsh, but it illustrates an important difference in strategy, and one they’ve diverged from with +1.

The +1 Difference

It might be impossible to create the perfect storm, but how about creating the perfect conditions for a perfect storm to manifest? With +1, Google is flipping the three elements found earlier in this article directly on their head, and it could be exactly what the doctor ordered for their social woes.

(1) Forget End Users, Focus On Our Users

While Google still fundamentally believes in and follows through with creating awesome products and services, marketing them is a completely different ballgame. People are finicky. People are creatures of habit. People are very different from one another and Google doesn’t quite have “people” – in general – figured out yet. However, Google does have one huge and strategically important group in their pocket.  What group collectively runs the internet and – in their own voice towards their own unique circle of friends – can motivate their “circle” to adopt Google’s products and services?

Webmasters. Think about it: what benefit do end users currently have to use Google’s +1? Almost none. Click the +1 button and see the number go up, but beyond that, does anything interesting happen? Not really.

Webmasters on the other hand have a huge opportunity by implementing +1… and run a huge risk in not implementing. Google has explicitly stated that +1 statistics can and will directly affect organic search results, a source of traffic that is responsible for the majority of traffic for most websites. Why deliver the message themselves when Google has an army of people closer to the end users, willing to recruit the masses?

(2) If You Build It, Bring It To Them

Field Of Dreams is one of my favorite movies on the planet and it features the memorable line, “If you build it, they will come.” referring to building a baseball field that will automagically attract the spirits of former ballplayers.

That’s what Google has done in the past: built it and expected them to come. And they did… but with socially oriented products, they left just as quickly as they came. With ideas that require a critical mass, you’ve got to have a more strategic and proactive approach then what marketers call “pitching and praying”.

This time around, with +1, Google is taking their product directly to the front and center of user’s focus. Not only will webmasters across the globe be implementing +1 in the hopes of attracting social clicks that improve their overall Google rankings, but Google themselves are walking the talk by showing +1 implementation in key places that define their business. For example, see what happens when I search for “phandroid” on Google:

When searching Google (which everyone does) and seeing the faces of your friends who have +1’d results, you’re forced to keep the service top of mind. If you don’t know what +1 is and you see these results, chances are you’ll be trying to find out. And since your favorite websites will likely be shoving +1 buttons down your throats, chances are lots of people will be +1’ing even before there are real benefits involved.

Google has also implemented the +1 button on Android Market, allowing users to +1 application pages on the web version of the market. Go ahead and visit the Phandroid App on Android Market and give it a +1!

Notice how you can +1 or Tweet but there is no sign of Facebook Liking anywhere? Yeah… that’s NOT a coincidence. The social war is upon us. Might they use this for ranking apps in Android Market as well? Possibly, and I’m sure app developers are taking note, suggesting their users +1 their application. Google will almost assuredly roll out +1 options in other places as well… but more on that later.

(3) Keep The Ball Rolling

Google Buzz and Google Wave lost steam quickly. The novelty wore off, everyone’s friends weren’t using it which made it less useful, people put it down which made it even less compelling and momentum went in the exact opposite direction as intended. Creating the perfect storm isn’t easy, but by:

  • Enlisting the support of webmasters
  • Incentivizing webmasters with better rankings
  • Plastering +1 and friends’ faces across their most visited pages

…Google is ensuring the service will get mass attention and for a decent amount of time. Webmasters will push +1 until it’s deemed useless and Google will push it on their homepage and other key places unless it fails. And it very well could fail if Google doesn’t follow up with more features. To keep the ball rolling, Google needs to extend a unique proposition and key benefit to end users. They’ve bought themselves a nice window of time by employing a new strategy… but they’ll squander the opportunity if they don’t follow it up with the awesome end-user product we hope they have under wraps.

Flattening Facebook

The Google +1 button isn’t going to do much all by its lonesome. But if Google is able to integrate the services they have made successful into one consumer-friendly social haven- watch out! Facebook only has one hugely successful product: Facebook. Within Facebook they’ve got some hugely successful features such as photo albums and up-and-coming features such as Places and Offers, but take a look at Google’s products that people rely every single day: Web Search, GMail, GTalk, Calendar, YouTube, Maps, Navigation, Chrome, Google Voice, Android and many more. Not to mention they’ve got their own picture service (Picasa), recently announced Google Offers and Google Wallet, and projects like Google TV and Chromebooks will further intimate the Google experience in your life.

On a service-by-service basis, Google is light years ahead of Facebook in key areas and if they’re able to harness all that power into one social system? They could potentially flatten Facebook.

They’ll never wipe Facebook out, but they can compete and possibly even win.

For example, with Google Maps and Google Nav on both Web and Android, they dominate the local search arena and give businesses a HUGE reason to cooperate and prioritize their relationship with Google. GTalk is tons better than Facebook Chat, Google Buzz offers location based discussion with friends, and Google Latitude and Places both offer incredible check-in and tracking type functionality. They’ve got video content locked down with Youtube and Youtube LIVE promises unique sharing abilities between friends. Did you forget about the announcement of Google Music? It’s all there…

Google is missing one key thing in competing with Facebook on the social scene: a single destination.

While Google has a lot of different services that people love and use, they all exist in their separate silos that don’t talk to each other. People love having one destination for each activity in their life and Google has accomplished this with many of their services. Want videos? Go to YouTube. Want E-Mail? Go to GMail. Want Maps? Go to Google Maps. Want to stay organized? Use Google Calendar. Want a phone? Use Android. Want Music? Google Music. Want Chat? GTalk. And the list goes on. But people also want one single destination for social.

Google has all the features and resources to integrate their amazing services into one user interface that allows people to share all types of various information with their friends, family, co-workers and whoever else they deem worthy in a simple, intuitive and fun way. They just need to do it. And now.

Where it could all go wrong…

As I already explained, creating the perfect storm is nearly impossible, especially when you’re competing head-on with a social powerhouse like Facebook. Google has all the tools to succeed and they’re building an environment to foster the organic creation of a perfect storm. That being said… it could all end up being a dud and here are a few key reasons why:

  • Lack of “Cool Factor”: Google doesn’t exactly have the “cool” factor when it comes to social and it’s a wildcard element that’s hard to piece together. It’s not just about the perfect service. It’s in the name, marketing, look/feel, and so much more. Google is known for many things but the social connectivity cool factor isn’t one of them… and overcoming that hurdle could prove problematic. If you ask me, Google would benefit by using a name/domain not directly associated with Google.com (think Youtube instead of Google Video).
  • Privacy Concerns: Although people like getting all their stuff in one place, people might feel that they already get enough from Google- also sharing their social information is just one step too far. For personal reasons, many people like keeping their social life separate from the rest of their life and by using a Google social service, many consumers may feel there are too many risks in potentially sharing information they really, really didn’t want to share. People like different outlets for different needs but will the masses want one company in charge of everything?
  • Anti-trust/Monopoly: It would be a great problem to have if Google made a social service so popular that the government came knocking on their door saying they’re too big. But the fact that this is inherently a risk is part of the reason the “cool” factor is hard to achieve- everyone likes an underdog and that’s how Facebook started out. Not to mention, the government already has their eyes on Google for this sort of thing.
  • Failure to Launch: This whole articles is predicated on the fact that Google +1 is the first step in unleashing a larger and comprehensive social strategy in the near future. Google +1 in it’s current state isn’t much of a threat to anyone. If Google doesn’t follow it up with front-facing end-user features, it’ll go the way of Buzz and Wave. Now that they’ve made +1 public, they have a window of time to roll out the rest of their masterplan. If they don’t have a masterplan? Bye bye +1. If they do? We’ll see what it is. But the next month or two will illustrate if Google has learned anything with the relative failures of Buzz and Wave.
  • Half-Bake Launch: Similarly, if Google rolls out something half-baked, people will try it for a little bit, not like it, leave, return to Facebook and never come back.

I have to think that Google planned/hoped to launch a lot of awesome social stuff at Google IO but just wasn’t ready. Learning from Buzz/Wave, they decided to wait until all the pieces were in place before they moved forward. They know that if they launch a Facebook competitor and it flops, consumers might not ever give them a second chance and that’s WAY too big of a risk to take by “rushing”. Now that the pieces are ready… +1 indicates step 1 of the plan.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe +1 is just another service Google is getting wrong. Maybe it’s a solitary service and Google doesn’t have plans to immediately integrate/promote it with a larger social product. The opportunity is here and now; Google should either capture it while they can or they should have waited to launch +1 altogether until they were ready. And don’t forget… just as Google could enter the Social Hemisphere in a big way, so could Facebook march into Google territory.

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