Wow, who would have thought? In the past few years, Google had grown increasingly scared and maybe even paranoid about Facebook, its growing power and how it would end up impacting Google. When Larry Page decided to get back in charge of the company, he made it very clear that social was his #1 priority, and that the success of the company would largely be viewed on its success in social. We knew that Google was working on some type of solution but that was nothing new given all of the recent product launches (Orkut, Wave, etc). All of those had failed miserably so there was little confidence in the fact that Google could come up with a good product. Most Google believers thought that at some point the company would cave in and acquire a player such as Twitter. How successful has Google+’s launch been? It has already gained 20M members within a few weeks, much faster than any other social product.
-Why it matters
So why did the company become obsessed with Facebook and with social in general? How did it become so critical? There are many different reasons but I think these were mostly defensive reasons. Google currently more or less controls the web. Users from around the world connect to the web and go through Google as their initial destination. Why? Because Google can help them find specific products and since it crawls the web, it it the best way to find anything that you could be looking for. Or it used to be. As users have started using Facebook, the way the web is used has started changing. If users are sharing links and information with their social network and that those networks are closed to crawlers such as Google, it’s safe to say that the web is becoming a much more closed place. That not only makes Google less useful but also takes away to some extent its central role. If Facebook knows users, what they like, who they know, what they’re doing, etc… more than Google, it could become better at targetting ads and a better platform for advertisers. That is what Google has been trying to avoid.
-How Facebook screwed up (apps)
To many, including yours truly, it seemed (and still does seem) as if Facebook facing any type of competition was extremely unlikely at best. Why? There are many hurdles for anyone even considering building a large and broad social network with any type of reach comparable to Facebook. All of that being said, Facebook did make a few mistakes that have helped Google have a shot. For example, Facebook has been unable to efficiently manage privacy issues and the fact that few people want to share the same items and photos with their college friends as they do with their family and co-workers. Another huge gap that is difficult to understand is Facebook’s slowness in releasing apps for the exploding mobile scene. How is it that the top social network still to this day does not have a functional Ipad app? It’s a major mistake and one that Google seems to be going after.
To be sure, Google+ has seen an incredible excitement towards its products and the 20 million users that have already signed up are probably well beyond Google’s hopes when the launch was made. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that there have been no public mistakes or errors despite all of the quick growth. Almost all critics agree that Google+ is a great product and has at least a shot at competing with Facebook.
-It’s Still An Uphill Battle
All of that being said, those calling Google+ a Facebook alternative and a success already are too early. Reaching 20M users is impressive but when you are simply using current Google users and signing them up after an easy 2 minute sign-up, that does not necessarily equal commitment. I’d be curious to hear how much time those users are spending on Google+. I’m one of those members and while I did sign up, I’ve never spent more than a couple of minutes on the network simply because at this point there is little going on among my friends and contacts. That could very well change but getting members to rebuild their network on Google+ when it exists and works well on Facebook will not be easy to pull off.
-Both Can Coexist
I think that one of the most overlooked things is that both could and probably will co-exist. Google+ is not a Facebook killer as Twitter isn’t. They are likely to have many of the same users and those will simply have one more website to visit. I don’t see a day for now where users start quitting Facebook to stay on Google+. It could happen but nothing indicates that it will at this point.If that occurs and Google+ becomes one of the “main social networks”, I think the initiative will have to be considered a major success. It was an uphill battle and Google seems to have a shot which is incredibly in itself.
What type of benefits can Google hope and count on if Google+ success keeps up? I would expect the main one to be for Google to remain at the center of the web and get an even greater understanding of its users, what they like, what they are interested in, etc. This will also help Google offer more customized offerings to its users both on the web, through Chrome, Android, apps, etc. It will also fit well within the strategy of offering voice and video chats, interactions with friends and family, etc. One other great benefit would be to gain a deeper integration of advertisers. Facebook gains so much through the presence of those brands that build Facebook pages, produces content, interacts with fans and even pays advertising dollars to promote their Facebook pages. There is incredible upside at little to no cost for Facebook and I expect Google to try to get a piece of that pie as it tries to offer the most complete advertising offerings available.
What are your thoughts on Google’s social strategy and its chances against Facebook?