What Google Plus is good for — “social networking” might just be secondary

So Google has been spreading rumours about their “serious” entry into social networking for quite a while. We all thought it would be Wave. Then they targeted Facebook’s most innovative technological breakthrough (Likes). Facebook without “Likes” wouldn’t really be Facebook, but just a revamped clone of whatever had come before it, with a clean design and lots of new features. But the ubiquitous “Like” button is what gave Facebook its fame and glory, specially because it’s so easy to integrate in pretty much anything. “Likes” appeal to a sense of competition: while the number of your friends on Facebook might just be available to whomever is logged in and bothers to check, “Like” buttons pretty much spread everywhere will immediately show an article or website’s popularity. It’s all about who can create the biggest bikini contest — “Likes” don’t really express much more than a good web marketing strategy. And they’re not a novelty, either — Digg had it right from the start, but never with the level of integration that Facebook provided.

Google copied the concept quite well with the “+1” button. There is obviously something which Google can leverage which Facebook cannot: they can order links on Google Search based on the popularity score of +1. And they can even order it based on your profile and your friends’ profiles (I don’t know if they actually do it that way), i.e. the order of the search results may be profile-optimised based on what your own friends think it’s worth reading. If Google pulls that off, they will effectively put “Likes” out of the market: we all know that what matters is how well your website/post/ad is ranked by Google, and “Likes” will never be featured there. Obviously that a well-”Liked” page will attract a lot of traffic and incoming links and thus, indirectly, be featured well by the Google Search ranking algorithm. But +1 influences it directly.

The question, of course, was how to get hundreds of millions of people to use +1 buttons instead of “Likes”. Right now, +1 is making just a very timid foray into becoming a successful feature on most pages; it will take some time to get used to. Still, with an alleged estimate of 200 million Gmail users (all of which with a Google Account that allows +1 to be used), it’s not unlikely that +1 gets more popular over time.

A way to jumpstart all this is Google Plus. Since sharing anything and commenting on shared items will feature +1, all of this will quickly show up on Google Search. And at that point Web and SEO marketeers will start to rethink their options: Facebook Likes might be good for 700 million users, but Google Search is used by everybody. Facebook ads might have given US$ 1.86 billion in revenues, and some claim that this is more than what Google gets from display ads, although Google’s Financial Tables show a different story: over US$28 billion in ad-related revenues, and growing steadily at over 20% a year.

Now the problem here for Google is that Facebook looks like an “opportunity”, because you will always know where your audience comes from — all data is profiled, and few people view Facebook ads without being logged in to Facebook, so Zuckerberg tracks everything neatly down. For Google Ads, Google has to infer where the visitors come from; only those 200 million Google Accounts might be logged in (and many might not even be logged in all the time), so ad statistics are only based on Google’s excellent — but incomplete — profiling stats. Facebook beats that easily.

If Google Plus catches on, the whole world of web-based advertising might do another 180º turn… again. Google, as you all know, proved during the dot-com bubble that you can survive selling web-based ads, at a time that nobody believed in those any more and all expected Google, like all other web-based ad sellers, to fold and disappear. They emerged from the bubble’s bursting as the leading web-based ad seller, with the competition — Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft — not coming even close. So if Google does one thing well is search engines; if they do two things well, the second one is obviously knowing how to sell ads. And why? Because they managed to link the two together, pretty much copying the same business model as Yellow Pages a century ago, but at a world-wide scale.

Now Google might not be so good at doing social networking tools, but — who knows? — they might have persuading arguments this time around. Google Plus, on this not-so-closed Beta, still doesn’t feature any ads. But it will. And in the mean time, the beta-testers are pushing all those +1′d links onto Google’s Search engine and making pages rank better. This will catch the attention soon, very soon, of all eager marketeers who still are waiting for Google to fail yet again.

Jumpstart into the activity

When I finally managed to create an account with Google Plus, the thing that immediately caught my attention was how it was crammed full with activity from all my friends. Because of timezone differences, I just logged in for the first time in slightly less than 24 hours after the not-so-closed Beta was “opened”; in fact, I joined in after Google shut down new registrations but left an open “hack” which allowed people to register if they got a shared comment by email. That was also closed now — so, no more registrations until someone figures out a new hack — but those 24 hours were precious. I haven’t checked how many people managed to register for Google Plus, but I’ve noticed that pretty much everybody I know in SL had an account there. Well, not everybody, of course, but at least everybody who is always busy flooding the social Internet with blogs, articles, and comments on Plurk/Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn/whatever else is fashionable in the moment. Because Google obviously knows who my contacts are — after all, they’re in Gmail — it was easy to present me with a page full of my existing friends’ activity. That’s very clever. You don’t get that daunting “empty social networking” page which you always get when entering a new service and are starting to figure out the interface to look for your friends to join.

Note that I have already suggested that Linden Lab does exactly the same for newbies just registering with SL: by having a checkbox for “allow my friends to search for email address” or something like that, new registrations could immediately have a list of friends to add, and this would give an otherwise “empty” world a completely different look.

Google Plus definitely leverages on the idea that your friends will quickly find you, and vice-versa, and all will be eagerly sharing content and commenting on each other — and clicking on those precious +1 buttons. So there is an immediate sense of reassurement: this is the place where everybody already is.

The issue here is pretty easily explained. When someone registers for Facebook, they have to create a new account. Obviously Facebook will try to make an effort to find some friends for you, and there are a lot of Facebook applications that will be even more aggressive; and you are always prompted to invite more and more friends. Since these days everybody and their dog are already on Facebook (wait, I forgot; dogs cannot have a Facebook account. Speciesism!!), you’ll quickly find whomever you knew that had an account. Of course things were quite different in 2006/7, where next-to-nobody had an account on Facebook.

Google Plus, by contrast, leverages on existing Google Accounts — anyone with a Gmail account can register for Google Plus (or could, if the beta was still open at the time of writing), and everybody with a Gmail account on your contact list (stored by Google!) will be immediately available for being added to one or more of your “Circles” (that’s how Google Plus calls a grouping of friends) — that’s why it’s so easy to see a lot of activity right from the very beginning. You can obviously also search for friends using Yahoo or Hotmail and still add more people to your Circles, but the secret of Google Plus’ immediate success is that existing accounts will be immediately available and are incredibly easy to add. Relationships are not bi-directional, as expected — someone who lists you as a Friend can be safely ignored, or, if you wish, can be placed on one or more Circles, but that’s up to you. You can also share your content with just a person (or even just yourself), a whole Circle, several Circles, “friends of friends” (i.e. people on your friends’ Circles), and even the whole audience of Google Plus. A spamming feature exists that allows you to push shared content by email to anyone not registered to Google Plus but already on your Gmail/Yahoo/Hotmail contact list (turning this off is not trivial; I expect this aspect of the interface to be reviewed soon, as the spamming is specially annoying since you currently cannot register for Google+ and are kept drooling with all the amount of information shared there which you don’t have access to — except by getting spammed all the time).

Interface for the second decade of the third millenium

After you get overwhelmed by the amount of information is being shared by all your friends, the next thing that will immediately capture your attention is the interface. Overall, like all Google mainstream products, Google Plus has the usual super-clean, minimalistic design that has been their hallmark since the new millenium. But the interface clearly has a nice twist: adding friends to circles is clearly meant to be used on a tablet. Rick Falkvinge immediately spotted this on his most excellent article (thanks to Tateru Nino for the link):

The contrast is striking and stunning as you toy around with Google Plus and everything is manipulated using symbols that you drag around on screen for real-time interactions and very few buttons. The interface is slick, intuitive and unlike anything on Facebook. This is for tablets. Yup: this is tablets. In large and small form factors, from phone to pad. Connected, mobile tablets. Google is not building this for 2008, it’s being built to hit a moving target in 2013. We’re coming there quickly. In contrast, Facebook already feels old with its keyboard-based entry fields everywhere.

While the launch of Google Plus just before the big US holiday was by no means a coincidence, I believe it wasn’t a coincidence either that it predates by a few weeks the launch of Apple’s new Mac OS X Lion, which builds upon the experience that Apple got from designing the touch-screen interface for the first iPhone and which was pretty much copied on every modern smartphone and tablet out there. What this means is that by late July a number of people bigger than the amount of users that Facebook has will be immediately familiar with an interface that is all about dragging boxes around and clicking large buttons and which feels so completely different than, say, Facebook, that it will be a pain to get back to the way websites were designed for mouse-based point-and-click-and-never-figure-out-the-right-option navigation model of five years ago.

This is very clever. Of course smartphone/applet application designers are familiar with the new interface design models; and more application developers will need to adapt to this new model that will become standard on every product launched by Apple (including laptops, desktops, and workstations running Mac OS X Lion). But the prominent web-based application that already uses that model will be Google Plus — it will immediately have a huge edge over Facebook’s own model, which, on a small screen like my iPhone’s, is a pain to navigate (Twitter, clearly based on the text messaging paradigm of mobile phones, is so much more useful on a small touch screen) and doesn’t capture the whole spirit of actually using Facebook. Matthew Panzarino already believes that Google+ is the killer app for Android tablets. It might be, or not; and a fully-featured iOS port might also become a potential “killer app” on the iOS platform too, making Apple very, very angry with Google (if I were Larry Page, I wouldn’t resist pissing off Steve Jobs that way :) ).

Now of course Zuckerberg will not be sleeping over this. The issue is how fast he can redesign the whole of Facebook to have a slick, modern interface and actually compete head-to-head with the Google giant…

Oh my. I’ve just done it: Google Plus is not even on open beta and I’m postulating how Facebook is going to compete with it :) Shouldn’t it be the other way round? :)