4th Jul 2011
With "insane demand" for Google+, we ask whether it is worth such excitement, if it can knock Facebook off its perch - and what businesses should know about the latest social network on the block?
Google may have left many underwhelmed with its last two social initiatives, Wave and Buzz, but this track record did little to quell the excitement that heralded the launch of its new social network, Google+.
Exceeding its allocated capacity within two days of its announcement, Google was forced to suspend the ability to request an invitation until its systems could be adjusted to handle the load, with Google VP of engineering Vic Gundotra citing “insane demand”.
So is it really worth such excitement? Can it really knock Facebook off its perch? And what should businesses know about the latest social network on the block?
What is it?
There are five main features to Google+.
- Circles – this allows you to build relationships much like Facebook, but with the key difference that unlike Facebook, which lumps your closest friends in with more distant relationships, Circles allows you to put your friends into groups. For instance, you could have a group for friends, family and work colleagues, allowing you to communicate with each group in a different way.
- Huddle – this is a group chat featre, useful for trying to organise a meet-up with multiple people on the move.
- Sparks – finds connections and discussions relevant to your own interests.
- Hangouts – a feature working with Google Chat, this offers real-time conversations and video chats with friends.
- Instant Upload – enabling videos and photos to be shared in an instant.
Here’s a Google video showcasing these features.
Initial reaction to Google+ has largely been positive – a definite improvement on the confusion that heralded the arrival of Buzz and Wave. Analyst Jeremiah Owyang blogged that after many mis-starts and social product debacles Google had finally "got their social networking offering down right", though he added that "the downside is there’s no reason to call this a ‘Plus’, it’s just a catchup". "When it comes to features, Google is at parity with Facebook, but isn’t compelling for a mass immigration of social behaviour," he concluded. "They must quickly integrate Google’s unique products like YouTube, Gmail, Apps, and others to slowly attract users over."
But others are optimistic that Google has more up their sleeve than what we’re already seeing. "You’ll notice that Google themselves haven’t made a big deal about Google+ and there’s a simple answer for that. The service is going to be much more than a ‘another social media platform’,” says Tim Giles, head of search at Positive Digital. "Google+ is a combination of existing Google products, namely Buzz and Wave (and a few others for that matter) wrapped up in a wall of search friendly magic, so yes it will be networking-based but within a more diverse arena."
Tamara Littleton, CEO of eModeration adds: "I believe there is always room for another player in the social networking sphere. The most interesting area for me is around the circles of trust that may allow users to split up their social and business personas in a way that makes more sense than Facebook privacy settings. My instinct is that it would be business first with social perks."
So if that is the case, what could it bring to business?
Google+ for business?
While Google’s own marketing literature on Google+ is unquestionably ‘consumer’, it is clear that many commentators suspect that it could be a further push towards enterprise web.
Tristan Rogers, CEO of Concrete, elaborates on this. "Google owns the information web, Facebook owns social web, but as yet, no one can claim to own enterprise web, and I think that is a space worth owning," he explains. "LinkedIn is a precursor to what enterprise web is, connecting professionals together for commercial gain. But LinkedIn is still a glorified site of CVs. Google+, despite its consumer packaging, brings a collection of collaborative tools together in one application suite.
"To video chat, aggregate content, share content and build groups of people that you can define rules against is a fundamental requirement within any established organisation. These are fundamental building blocks for organised communication across a disparate workforce. The same can be said of behaviour in the consumer web, but critically, Facebook does not offer such a defined set of tools to work in this way."
Lisa Abbott, senior product marketing manager for the social media side of Alcatel-Lucent's Genesys, agrees that Google+ is a play for the enterprise, and in particular the small and medium business segments. "The product capability goes beyond networking and information sharing, as they are incorporating capabilities such as Huddle, similar to Skype, that will position them for the future with enterprise collaboration," she suggests.
The Circles feature, which allows users to set up multiple social networks based on defined relationships, has also been identified as a potentially useful tool for enterprises. Littleton predicts: "If a brand had its own Google + branded page, it would be a great way to allow employees to use the different circles of trust to work with each other behind the scenes, but include a public face where customers and consumers can engage directly with the different sections of the company (e.g. customer services). It seems they're going after an enterprise client base and perhaps a retro 'extranet' approach works well for today's more demanding users."
However, Sarah Evans, owner of Sevans Strategy, and a contributor to the Eloqua & JESS3 The Social Media ProBook, is less convinced of the network’s qualities as an engagement tool. "In its current state I don't that the Circles concept allows for great brand touch points. From a consumer perspective each Circle is a personal or professional hub used to connect with specific people you've selected to interact with," she says. However, she adds: "Google+ could allow a rise in the trusted voice of a ‘superuser’. Brands could leverage people who have Circles in their target demographic as opposed to trying to awkwardly fit in."
Huddle and Hangouts have also been earmarked as potentially valuable areas for businesses to develop brand promoters, enabling companies to focus on a much more targeted audience by identifying groups that are a good fit for the brand as opposed to just posting an offer on a Facebook wall, for instance.
"As a platform, it can clearly be used by businesses to curate online communities and identify relevant individuals for their brand," suggests Niklas de Besche, executive director at Meltwater Buzz. "The social media industry is maturing from the early days of businesses monitoring and analysing what’s being said out there, and is now entering the next phase – engagement. Essentially this is social CRM – the next big leap for social media: finding relevant consumers and topics, identifying influencers, 360 degree profiling of them, and then building online communities."
In addition to this speculation about Google+ in its current guise, it would appear that Google is already developing concrete plans to build out Google+ as profile tool for businesses in the future. While details are extremely thin on the ground at this point, there has been an acknowledgement that work on business profile pages has already begun. Jeff Huber, Google VP of local and commerce, has said: "We will have (SMB) business profile pages on Google+... I can't announce a date yet, but we want to make them great, and we're coding as fast as we can." Watch this space.
Elsewhere, with social media playing a much bigger part in search results, PracticeWEB's search marketing manager, Frankie Wallington, has suggested that Google+ could also have an impact on the way that search results are presented to users – something that businesses may have to bear in mind.
"[Google’s Panda update] allowed Google to take sites that people said they did or didn’t like using a set of quality raters such as ‘would I trust this site enough to give my credit card details?’ and scale that to every other site on the web. You’ve ended up with search results that aren’t just based on content that is optimised for search terms that get linked to a lot, which can create search results full of sites that you don’t really want to see but have been manipulated, you have search results that should throw up great websites with interesting content, great design, positive user experiences and less spammy ads," she explains.
"Couple this with what the Google+ project will allow you to do with sharing user experience and opinions. Essentially you’ll be able to ‘like’ certain sites or AdWords ads and put a comment next to why you like them. So, if I do a search for a product or service and I see that one of my friends has +1’d one of the search results I’m fair more likely to go on their recommendation. Basically the way we use the web and the way search results are presented to us is about to get a real shake up!"
So should businesses start factoring Google+ into their plans? Or will Google+ be a flash in the pan. At this early stage, opinion is divided.
"I think Google+ is going to do the same as Google Wave, and sink!" predicts David Bashford, director at SITEFORUM. "In order to be successful it must prove that it can offer a new dimension to existing social networking sites, which I doubt very much that it will. Instead, it seems clear Google is trying to force a platform on consumers, leading it to already fail in competing with Facebook which had the first move advantage and was launched and developed ahead of consumer demand."
He adds: "Many marketers have had their fingers burnt by investing time and money in networks that haven’t taken off, so I would imagine Google+ won’t have an effect on the marketing industry unless it shocks us all by gaining significant traction amongst everyday internet users. For brands, this may become another channel to exploit but I would not waste too much effort anytime soon. The value of engaging with consumers on social networks is proven – however, the ultimate goal for brands must still be driving the conversation to their own websites, which should be ready and willing to offer as much interactive and personalised content as any social network."
Paul Maher, director of Positive Marketing, is similarly pessimistic. "Many of our B2B clients want to engage in social media for brand awareness and market research. But apart from online communities (which are generally self-serving), e-zines which cannot often be dull ‘content graves’, Linkedin and the excellent Twitter, they struggle," he says. "Facebook is where people share work-avoidance gossip, sexual conquests and holiday snaps, so there is a reluctance to invest there. Facebook needs some serious competition and perhaps Google+ probably isn’t it, but perhaps it indicates that the social media saga has a long way and perhaps a bubble or two to go yet."
However, others offer a more optimistic appraisal.
"Google does not have a good track record. They fail more than succeed in this space. But early signs are that there has been a lot of thought behind this," highlights Rachel Clarke, head of engagement intelligence, at marketing agency Momentum London. "The design is good and they have put a lot of effort into the privacy elements, being able to control different levels of privacy for different social circles. As this is one of the major complaints about Facebook, frequently cited as a reason for people to leave, this could be a very important ‘selling point’ for the network."
However, she also has a note of caution: "If you look at the early iterations of both Facebook and Twitter, they were very different to what is available now. As start-ups, they had the advantage of growing slowly and taking feedback from usage. For example, both hashtags and the @ reply in Twitter were developed from how the tool was being used – they were designed by a user, not the Twitter team. Google may not have this luxury, it’s big and expected to produce something that works now."
Simon Quance, head of Sixth Sense social media, part of the Equi=Media group, sees plenty of positives, but believes that Google may keep branding at arm’s length for the time being as it builds out the network. "From what I have seen of Google+ so far, this is Google’s most rounded approach to social and it does a good job of pulling together the social technology that Google always had, or had recently launched," he says. "I would speculate that, at least for the time being, Google will not allow brands to develop a presence, restricting ads and commercial activity. Google’s big play could be to focus on community development in a significantly ad free environment, so for the time being, Google+ will not have a significant impact on marketers, although of course it will be important to keep an eye on future developments. The longer Google can keep Google+ commercial-free the better it will be for the success of the network."
The initial rush of interest has, it seems, even surprised Google. But whether the excitement will still exist once the dust settles remains to be seen. For the time being, brands will watch with interest. Because whatever its track record, and whatever the initial response to Google+, you can’t count Google out.
As Abbot concludes: "Google has the deep pockets and staying power to eventually find a formula for success – even if it takes them two or three tries."