Google+ or Google– ?

Another day, another social network. But this time, Google has waded in, and the big beast may finally have got social right.

Google+ means more work for all of us, more utility, more competition and, potentially, a restructuring of online business and personal interaction. But why would we expect anything less from Google? OK, Buzz and Wave were semi-flops but, don’t forget, Google took on China and won (so far), so Facebook should be a piece of cake.

I’ve been on an early field trial of Google+ and have got a good sense of the space created. I’ve also invited colleagues to participate. Common questions are: why should we join yet another digital community? To what advantage? Is this the future? What are the pros and cons?

First impressions

The advantages of using Google+ seem to be:

  • Better interface/tech on the whole (with no doubt loads more to be rolled out ie: games and check-ins)
  • Better GoogleVerse integration (ie: Gmail, Docs, Calendar etc – even perhaps Analytics?), better ownership of my content/data/persona etc.
  • ABF (Anyone But Facebook). Loving Google+, the social network underdog in this fight, will bring innovation and more digital social value to all of us, even if it isn’t a worthy rival (which it is).
Sure, Google+ has its teething problems (what massive infrastructure wouldn’t?), namely with anonymity etc, but these issues will no doubt be resolved.

Here’s why Google+ won’t go the way of Buzz, Wave et al:

Bums on seats

First, it’s big. Real big.

As of May 2011, Google  passed the billion users per month mark; Facebook is not far behind. So let’s call it a draw on user volume. But clearly Google surpasses Facebook on product breadth and depth. It took Facebook nearly three years to reach 20m users. It took Google+ only three weeks!

The trick is traction

But 20m is meaningless if it stops there, so the question is whether or not Google+ will gain traction quickly enough and continue to grow.

The first 20m is the easiest (never thought I’d say that) when you have what Google has to start with. Also we’re talking about natural early adopters. But what about the rest of the world? Why will they end up on Google+?

Most of us have invested time in building our profiles on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn etc entirely because our networks are there. So the ROI on our time is clearly high in those spaces. Why would we now invest time in Google+?

Well, it comes down to whether you believe that your network will end up on Google+. If they do, are you happy to be fashionably late to the party?

This important issue is not how Google serves the early adopters, but how it looks after the mainstream user base. Right now, a vast swathe of the mainstream clearly interact with Google at some level on a daily basis. Most of them clearly do not blog, tweet, use LinkedIn etc. If Google can transition those people into the Google+ experience, then one would fancy Google’s chances of hitting critical mass.

I reckon Google is planning to transition people over from their existing product base into Google+ in two principal ways: ubiquity and utility.

1. Ubiquity

Anyone with a Google account via Gmail, Calendar, Docs, Analytics, Photos and more services, when logged in and visiting a Google property, will automatically see the Google+ option at the top. Invitations are flying round wildly so word of mouth combined with existing activity is creating a user maelstrom.

Oh, and if that’s not ubiquitous enough for you, Google’s Plus One button is now rivalling the Facebook “Like” and “Share” buttons for adoption on sites around the world.

2. Utility

The utility of Google+ is astonishing. I currently email, blog, tweet and Facebook as my four primary digital communication channels. All four are possible in one place via one interface on Google+. Facebook wanted to revolutionise email but Google+ has beaten them to it (and included blogging, large and small, in the package).

From Google+ I can publicly micro-blog and long-form blog. I can connect and be social. I can email. All driven by Google+’s innovative circles (which is a much better implementation of what Facebook called Groups originally – but never took off). You can send something to everyone, individuals, groups, whatever grouping you want.

So Google has the numbers but……

Just because they can, it doesn’t mean they will

Google can clearly work hard to convert its existing universe of active daily users into the Google+ experience but will the mainstream use all the fancy features just because they now can?

Well, they already are. It’s not even a gamble for Google. No doubt tens, if not hundreds, of millions of active Facebook users update their status every day, tweet, tumbl, use LinkedIn, Flickr, Stumble and so on. Most of which falls into the micro-blogging category one way or another.

Google+ is finishing what Facebook started and Twitter carried on. With Google+, the barrier to use is now as low as typing an email.

That’s the key to why I think Google+ will fly. Google+ just gave email social wings. Google+ has just done for email what Twitter did for SMS. Google+ has evolved email into a multi-layered, socially-enabled, content broadcast mechanism. Google+ has made a whole new layer of digital communications, namely the micro and long-form blogging normally reserved for early adopters and geeks, available to everyone. And as we are naturally social and chatty animals, well, you can see where that’s heading…

Google+ for business and brands

Given Google+’s issues with anonymity (see above) what does this mean for businesses and brands? Facebook clearly addresses the need for brands to exist on the platform rather elegantly (after a few years of painful teething troubles, I might add) and many brands now enjoy significant traffic via Facebook as a result. Google has plans in this space and it sounds pretty promising to me. Given that it has Search, PPC, Maps, Reviews and Ecommerce already up and running, I just cannot see how Facebook can get back in this game in the same way.

Getting off the fence
I believe this is Google’s game to lose. Up until now, Google just did not get social. This time, it has. Google has played a fantastic strategic game of chess. Patiently positioning all its pieces and now slowly unveiling its strategy with brilliant execution, piles of cash, a massive brand, a massive database, a clear path to adoption, traction and evolution and full sight of its competitor.

Google+, in short, has evolved communications like no other digital player before. Facebook thought it was all over. It is now!

Al Tepper is a business magazine publisher, a social media swami and was previously head of online development for Real Business and Caspian Media.

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