Google+: Waving the Buzz away

After all, it looks like everybody hates Facebook

What happened in the past few days? Taking into account that most Americans are enjoying their holidays, that the registrations are tightly closed, and that the real analysis will only be published in a few weeks, at least when Google opens up registrations again, and hopefully releases their developer API (also make sure you vote on this poll!), it was striking to see how many hundreds (thousands?) of articles about Google Plus have flooded the blogosphere.

Even just writing a short summary of all aspects covered in the past few days is a daunting challenge. What striked me most was really how much people have been hating Facebook in the past. I’m part of a tiny group that has always been quite unhappy with Facebook — a group that is so tiny that I’ve always been delighted when I found a twin soul by chance! There are tons of reasons for that, but the biggest one, of course, is how Facebook, after announcing how Russian-based Digital Sky Technologies has done a big investment in them — DST, in turn, having a huge slice owned by the Russian Mafia capo Alisher Usmanov — all of a sudden reversed their 2006 policies of allowing pretty much everybody to register for an account, and now demand “real” accounts, to the point of requiring proof of identity by forcing people to upload copies of their ID cards, passports, or equivalent documents just to keep their accounts open. More than 20,000 accounts are closed by Facebook every day — all of them “fake” accounts (in the sense that their owners refused to provide a valid ID), spammers, and “illegitimate content” (which pretty much covers the whole range of adult content and copyrighted images). 20 million users left Facebook in 2010 for one reason or the other, and more will probably be kicked out of the service this year. Even if Google hadn’t done nothing, Facebook’s growth would have stalled, as the number accounts that gets deleted is close to the number of new accounts. That’s not bad by itself — a market of profiling data for 700 million users is immensely attractive — but it certainly shows a trend: to jump to a new level, Facebook just has to come up with something new, and having a restrictive policy is not a good idea to open up their platform to even more users. Seriously, who wants to give their sensitive ID card to the Russian Mafia? Not me!

The rest of the issues I have with Facebook are relatively minor and really very personal, so they will not apply to everybody. I don’t find much value in Facebook, to be honest. It’s not that I’m against social networking tools, but I classify them under the label of entertainment, not business. They’re fun if you happen to have fun friends to interact with; but compared to the level of entertainment and interaction you can have in Second Life — or real life! — they’re worth nothing. Facebook and their ilk have a big advantage, which is the ability to cross geographical barriers very easily. But Facebook is terrible to find anything worthwhile. It’s “all on the spur of the moment”. Once something gets posted, there is no way to figure where it is again. The data is still archived (and being profiled!) by Facebook’s servers, but there is no way to get it back — not even via Google’s search engine. So it’s very appealing to people with short attention spans, or for people just wishing a bit of activity for a while and quickly forgetting about everything else, but useless for anything else. Twitter has lots of limitations, but at least you have a single timeline where everything gets posted, so, even though it takes some time, you might be able to find that special link you’ve been endlessly looking for. No, honestly, if I need to recall something that someone has said to me, I prefer mail — specially fully searchable mail like Google Mail provides, but I’ll be happy with the much more limited searching features of Apple Mail. Or even web-based Squirrelmail. All of them have an archiving purpose. You might claim that social networking is not about data retrieval, but quasi-real-time interaction, but I would disrespectfully disagree: any application that claims to be an “email killer” will have to address the issue about storage, classification, and retrieval of information — because that’s the serious use of email. Sure, gazillions of people (specially the younger generation, but not all of them are youngsters) just use email to share links, videos, jokes, and silly slideshows, and for them, Facebook is a far better replacement. But that’s not the only use of email.

A few friends of mine have tried to do “serious interaction” with companies with Facebook Pages. What they found out is that their complaints were often ignored — or, worse, deleted. It makes sense: just like most corporate sites (not the corporate blogs) don’t allow comments, because most companies are not so interested in hearing their customers replying back, they also are unwilling to get complaints by Facebook. The difference is that it’s so easy to delete a Facebook message or comment. Emails, by contrast, can have some authority behind them — in my country, a digitally-signed email (using a cryptographic key that is inside any Citizen’s digital ID card) is as valid as a letter sent by snail mail. Sure, you can claim that you never received the email — but you can also try to claim never to have read a registered snail mail letter either, but it would never be accepted in court. Facebook messages, however, can be very simply ignored — and since the system is under Zuckerberg’s control under a specific legislation, you would have no choice to prove you’ve sent the message.

When publicly discussing this, most of my acquaintances tend to shrug it off. They say that Facebook is not for “serious business” anyway. But in that case I’ll have to point out that web marketeers are saying precisely the contrary. Some even go as far as suggesting that organisations pretty much forget about their corporate sites and just interact with their users on Facebook. And a lot do exactly that: the “transition phase” is to have corporate messages or the corporate blog pushing content into a Facebook Page (via Notes or the Wall) and then drop the corporate site altogether, and just stick to Facebook Pages. They claim — very correctly — that ads on Facebook can immediately target a lot of potential customers who are closely data-mined by Facebook, while on one’s own corporate site, it means doing it all with external tools, some of which can be very expensive, and rarely provide the sheer amount of data that Facebook is able to provide. So, yes, Facebook is also being “sold” as a corporate-grade product. But it has a kindergarten-style, naive approach to what businesses actually need — except for profiling data, which Facebook is extremely good at extracting.

Even freelancers are “businesses” — not just megacorps. I used to get the occasional job request on Facebook, too — even though my email address is publicly posted on a billion places, some people, jumping onto the Facebook bandwagon, preferred to use Facebook as a means to reach me. That’s all very fun, but I quickly lose track of who sent me a message. And since Zuckerberg can delete accounts at will, I have no idea how many lost opportunities I have missed since then. By contrast, email is under my control. Sure, I redirect my email to Gmail, but that’s my choice. If Google suddenly deletes my account tomorrow, I would not lose a single message — because I have backups of all of them, since 2004, on my laptop. I would just point my address elsewhere, and after a small hiccup, I would continue to be in touch. With some of my professional accounts, I don’t rely on Gmail exclusively — I keep a secondary mail server on stand-by with duplicates of all messages. If Gmail fails, or if by any chance I get kicked out of Google, I can just point my mail application to the secondary server and pick up from where I left. More to the point: I can search on my mail account, no matter where it is currently hosted.

I agree that these are, for most people, very minor issues. Even though Facebook’s security policy has been often criticized, the other points are seldom mentioned. Overall, the whole world — specially the tech and marketing world — has been praising Facebook as the best thing since sliced bread. Nobody really cares that Facebook only made a tiny profit in 2009 — less than Linden Lab — although 2010 seemed to have been a rather good year, even though Zuckerberg is not concerned about profit. Well, I’m old-fashioned. In this age when we question the whole financial model that builds upon virtual expectations of what a company is worth, having the actual ability to put a good, solid idea into a profitable model is, for me at least, very important. Facebook constantly valuates itself by selling slices of the company at absurdly high prices and thus driving the expectation of its worth to sky-rocketing heights. In that, they’re not different from many other companies, of course, but it’s a cheap trick… selling ads, of course, is another story. But, again, most analysts on the digital media pretty much shrug off the “dirty money talk” and just praise how valuable Facebook is for companies leveraging their online strategies. I subscribe to several marketing newsletters which all sell pretty much the same story. And as I usually tell my close friends, Facebook’s real success, just like Twitter’s, comes mostly from journalists — it’s far easier to spend all the time logged in to Facebook or Twitter to get ideas for articles (coming from shared links and conversations between colleagues and peers) and then justify all the time spent on “social networking” by publishing articles saying how cool “social networking” actually is. Editors love it, because more social networking used that way means paying less for commercial newsfeeds from Reuters or Associated Press, and that saves costs, so obviously articles related to Facebook (or Twitter) will be better — which, in turn, encourages more journalists to try it out and write articles on their own. This generates a huge, explosive growth of promotional articles — and social networking marketeers, looking for the “Next Best Thing” to push to their clients, will obviously love to point them to a wealth of information about the wonderful world of social networking.

So how can the trend of the past few days be explained? When both Twitter and Facebook were young, and MySpace was already fading into the background, articles about “social networking” were far more interesting. Since both services were seen as direct competitors, and Facebook quickly grew to match Twitter’s userbase and since then left them far behind, the discussion was centred around which model made more sense. Facebook had far more features already — and Twitter faced constant scaling problems — and they all of a sudden introduced the “Like” button. There was a clear winner. Without any real, serious competitor, all minds turned suddenly to Facebook as “the new Internet”, and the past few years have seen little disagreement on that. Perhaps only this past year I started to read more and more articles about how video streaming ads were slowly catching up and becoming important again; even Google’s YouTube seemed finally to make a profit (not to mention Hulu) — allegedly, income from video ads on popular streaming services are already more important than most types of Web-based ads, except for search-based ads, which are by far the largest source of income (mostly for Google, of course). However, video is still not widely accessible to most (small) companies — it’s still far too expensive to design a compelling video ad when compared with a tiny ad with a simple picture on either Facebook or Google AdSense.

My own surprise came mostly from seeing all of a sudden an incredible amount of bashing on Facebook’s design and business model. For years analysts and bloggers have been silent about both. The praise of Facebook’s success (which is undeniable!) has disappeared from the blogosphere in a pinch; and this during a US holiday where most of the blogosphere’s audience cannot even log in to Google Plus to see what the buzz is about. A product in now-closed-again beta, in spite of its many flaws and quirks, is already seen as a potential Facebook killer and the next-best mobile application to swamp the market. Facebook is “already” gone the way of MySpace, Friendster, and others (that nobody remembers any more), and all this with just a humble beta version. Sure, it’s a very impressive beta version, but nothing is worth being so overhyped just after a few days of a short glimpse of its potential.

I dread the day when Google Plus truly opens the Beta to the mainstream audience and announces the Developer API and starts placing ads (yes, of course, ads; Google needs that income). I guess that the Internet will come to a standstill. And there will be a rush to those keyboards, as millions of journalists and marketeers, who have been overhyping Facebook for the past five years, all start to yell the Google mantra and whistling a requiem for Facebook.

Well, it’s incredibly early for that!

My thought is that Google will leverage on a few things that they did “right” with Google Plus. First of all, it will be very easy to expand the existing ad network to yet another service, and this will please current Google ad customers: they will have yet another place to push their ads. Google will make many of their advertisers happy that way. Secondly, I can imagine that the mobile blogosphere will be incredibly excited about how Google has brought a tablet-like interface to their new service, and point out that if Google is doing that, hundreds of millions of tablet and smartphone users cannot be so wrong. So the mobile market will love Google Plus. Thirdly, Google’s way of dealing with integration APIs is naturally raising expectations with the developer community, which will pretty much integrate everything with Google Plus. Next comes the explosion of “+1” buttons everywhere, and, most importantly, they will finally make a difference in the way search results are ranked. This will be very closely watched by SEO specialists, which will then recommend their clients to stop buying ads on Facebook and placing “Like” buttons everywhere, but focus instead on getting “+1” buttons, since those will drive their rankings higher. Now it’s only at this stage where things will really start to become interesting, and I expect that this won’t happen in a year or even two — marketeers and SEO consultants have slowly built up their client portfolio, and touting Facebook as the place to be for many years now, so, at first, they will just recommend being on both places at the same time. Google Plus will need a massive, exponential growth (which is not impossible; after all, they can start with 200 million accounts…) to avoid the Microsoft vs. Apple comparison (“who wants to develop for a Mac, it has no users…” “yes, but it’s a more valuable company than Microsoft!” “who cares?”), and I don’t know if even Google is able to get such a massive amount of new users in such a short time frame. Finally, they will have a positive spin on the news because of their “old-fashioned” attitude to privacy and security on the Internet: Google was always “old school” regarding privacy, and their internal culture still reflects the idea that “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog“, while Facebook’s Zuckerberg subscribes to the “privacy is dead” philosophy. This will give the journalists the pretext to finally publish all those articles about stolen identities, stalking users via their Facebook posts, and all sorts of nastinesses that the Russian Mafia is doing with Facebook’s profiling data, which will only please Google.

So, a year or two from now, we’ll know who will “win”. 700 million users don’t disappear overnight (even by deleting 20,000 users per day will take a decade until they’re all gone 🙂 ). Facebook has that amount of time to either reverse their policies or, more likely, to completely redesign their interface. And, who knows, Microsoft might all of a sudden rise from the ashes again. If there was only Facebook to beat, it might have been impossible for new players to enter the market. If Google Plus seriously threatens Facebook, Microsoft — who has an ad-serving technology and a rather good search engine and more accounts on Hotmail/Live than Google on Gmail, plus lots of social networking tools in their portfolio — might just think that launching Windows 8 or 9 with a tablet-like interface and a new “Live Plus” social networking site that works as well as Google Plus on the Android is a good idea and that there is still a chance to compete in this market.

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