The allure of all that social media online attention was way too much for Google so it’s back again with another social media play (anyone remember Google Wave?), this time with Google+. So in one corner there’s the Gorilla of Facebook with its 750 million users and now, in the other corner, we have Google+ with a quickly growing base, but still way below 10% of its competitor’s membership.
So here’s a quick summary of the Chris Price take on what all this means.
Firstly, I think Google has a way to go before it offers a viable alternative to the big F. There are two areas in which it needs work – simplicity and community. Facebook is so simple to use that even the most technologically challenged person can write a status note and find a friend to connect with. There’s not a lot that can go wrong. This is probably why there are so many millions of people using it across so many age groups and demographics. Keep it simple and it seems the crowds will follow – as they have.
Google, however, has only got part of the simplicity message. Writing a post in Google+ is a breeze. You just start writing away and you are done.
Here’s an image of what my Google+ page looks like.
Google even extends the way you can interact with your friends by allowing you to use group video and group chat. But when it comes to finding and connecting to others in Google+, then things become a bit more tricky. Part of the reason for this is Google’s ability to let you cluster your friends into “circles” and then to share certain types of content with each of these.
Here’s what my circle area looks like – leaving me the job of picking people from my contacts and then dragging them down into the circle I want them to be in.
Everyone needs to be in their own circle but some can be in more than one at a time. You can configure your own profile to have alternative privacy settings for each circle. Getting confused yet? Well it’s all a lot easier once you get a Google+ account and watch the videos they offer to see what you need to do.
Which is of course the issue – you need to watch a video to figure it all out. It’s the true dilemma I suppose Google faced. Do they make their tool so basic to use that it attracts and engages as many people as possible, knowing that by doing so they risk being seen as no different to Facebook? Or should they increase the number of features available in Google+ to set them apart from the alternative but, by doing so, also increase the likelihood that people will find the tool too hard to use and therefore limit its growth?
So they took the latter option and, while millions are seemingly joining every week, none include those who are in my rather small but perfectly formed Facebook friends list. Which means I’m not moving soon. Social media websites are the ultimate example of the “network effect” in action – the value of the website is directly linked to the number of people using it. So, while having 750 million users is a nice thing to present, the real value to me as a user is that my siblings in the UK use Facebook, as do my cousins in Denmark and, closer to home, some ex work chums in Wellington. It’s probably a collection of only 25 people but for me those 25 are very important.
A few of these work in IT so are super-techno-literate, while others probably use a computer just to check their own personal email once or twice a month. And somehow Facebook, with its very basic interface, allows them all to connect with each other in a very simple but very valuable way.
So what was really broken in all this to make Google go out and produce a replacement?
Some would argue that it was the way that Facebook allowed limited control of how your content was shared amongst your connections through some quite basic privacy settings. Personally, I’ve never had an issue with it – and neither have any of my Facebook friends. But nevertheless, there’s no doubt that Google+ with its “circles” of contacts allows you a lot more control here.
However, improving the privacy options available to users is not the real strategy here. It’s all about capturing as much online attention as possible. Last year Facebook kicked Google off its perch as the most visited website in the US. That would have hurt those at Google. There’s only so much “attention” you and I have and one more hour spent inside Facebook chatting with our friends is one less hour you could use searching Google for a product or reading other websites, where in both cases you may end up clicking on a Google ad or two along the way.
Whether Google will achieve its goal of winning the “attention war” between it and Facebook I’m not sure. However, I am picking that there are buildings full of very smart computer engineers in Google Land trying their hardest to ensure they do. What we see now in Google+ could well be very different to what ends up on our screens in the months ahead. The drive to simplify the interface while still retaining some edge over Facebook must be a constant challenge.
My take is that Google will have a year to gain the membership volumes they need to make the network effect work for instead of against them. That is unless Facebook makes a privacy blunder of massive proportions, which convinces masses of people to migrate to Google sooner than they expected.