This is the first of a series of "Top 5 things to know about Google+" we will be running this week, going into some more depth about the importance of Google+ to Google, the competition between Google, Facebook and other online social services.
Google+ launched just 4 weeks ago. In a financial earnings call, Google CEO Larry Page revealed that over ten million people had joined Google+ in two weeks, with over a billion items being shared and received in a single day, and the recently launched "+1" button is being served 2.3 billion times a day. Later figures from comScore indicated that the service had attracted 20 million users in just 3 weeks – not bad, considering that it is still in an invitation-only "field trial." The service is expected to make a more public transition in August, as all Google profile pages which aren't publicly visible will be deleted "after the 31st July."
But it isn't just the rate of adoption that marks Google+ out as notable; it has the search behemoth's full weight behind it. A leaked memo earlier this year indicated that bonuses for all Google staff will be dependant on the success of their social strategy. In an in-depth look at Google+ from Wired, Vic Gundotra (SVP of Social for Google) says that;
We’re transforming Google itself into a social destination at a level and scale that we’ve never attempted — orders of magnitude more investment, in terms of people, than any previous project,
So the 'project' is obviously a huge undertaking for Google. But why is this 'social' project so important to Google, who have such a dominant position in online advertising and technology? Obviously, Facebook have quickly become the biggest (some might say only) player in social media. Why does Google feel the need to catch up?
The Social Web
To put Social Media into context; there are three stages that mark the progress of the computing; the physical networks, information networks, and social networks 1. In the late 1960s, technologies were developed to to physically connect different computers; by physically connecting machines that two people were using, each could access the others applications or information. First, with computer networks and later, the internet (literally, a network of networks) it was possible to add any new machine to the same network.
The problem this created was that while computers could 'speak' to one another, if the user of one computer wanted to access information on another computer, then they needed to understand how the software on both machines worked. The solution to this problem led to the second stage; the World Wide Web.
In the early 1990s, Tim Berners-Lee started a project to solve this problem, creating a network of documents and information; hyperlinked pages that could be accessed through a web browser. In theory, it didn't matter what sort of computer your browser was running on, or what sort of computer the pages were being served from; you could jump from page to page without knowing anything about how or where the information was physically stored. The Internet created a platform for computers to connect; the World Wide Web created a platform to connect the information that was stored on them.
The "social web" is the next stage; linking together the people who are using the network. While the insight behind the World Wide Web was that the information is more interesting than the computers or the physical network, the social web is about the fact that the people are more interesting than the information.
This ties in with a number of trends we are seeing at the moment. The most obvious (but not necessarily the most significant) is the growth of social networking websites. These create platforms for people to communicate; every user has an identity, and that identity is connected to other identities.
At the moment, there isn't a single "online identity" – one user might have created (for example) a profile on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn; different identities, aimed at different ways they want to use their identity. They might well also have accounts for Amazon and iTunes, and email accounts with Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo (probably several more besides)– each of which creates a different identity, with different functions. 2 But increasingly, rather than invite users to create new profiles for new internet services, they are asked to log in by linking to a profile on an existing service– Facebook's launch of the Open Graph last year helped to make this more visible, and even easier for website developers to implement.
A second important trend is the rise of always-on, 'ubiquitous computing'. It used to be that going online would probably involve booting up a computer, then dialling up to the internet. Now, we have (in the UK alone) always-on broadband internet access for the vast majority of internet users. Virtually all of them also own a mobile phone, and we are rapidly approaching the point where that is likely to be a smartphone, giving them access to the internet even when they are away from a computer. Many of them will have access to more than one computer (for example, home and work), and tablet computers like the iPad are creating yet another class of connected device. Over the next decade or so, it seems reasonable to expect new televisions, cars, and a number of other devices to come with an internet connection.
What this means is that "the device" or "the browser" is no longer a useful analogue for "the user." At its most simple, being logged into a service means having a cookie stored on your machine – every device means a different cookie. Where different applications are used on the same device (for example, an iPhone user might view web pages from the Safari web browser, and within the Facebook and Twitter applications, as well as their desktop PCs web browser and email client – one user, two devices, five cookies.)
Rather than have a username and password to enter for every service on every different browser, there is a need for consolidated identities. Until recently, that identity would be a unique email address.
For users of the Android smartphone operating system, the Google account is also tied to the handset- providing access to services like a contacts list, Gmail and other Google services. For Chrome users, the Google account can be used to keep the browser settings consistent across different computers. But to make that worthwhile for the user, there needs to be a service more compelling than personalised search, or keeping your browsers theme or plugins consistent.
Its worth noting that what is currently visible in the technical preview is unlikely to be the full Google+ experience; the ambition goes far beyond just another list of friends and stream of up to the minute social news. Rather than a single social networking service, Google+ is about integrating "social" into all of Google's products and services.
What might that look like?
- Identity + Search = What pages do my friends like?
- Identity + Maps = Where are my friends right now? Have they been anywhere nearby?
- Identity + YouTube = What videos have they watched? What did they like?What videos are they watching? (Can I watch them with them?)
- Identity + Gmail = Who am I emailing? Do we have any mutual friends or interests? What are they interested in?
- Identity + Calendar = When are my contacts free/busy? When are we meeting? (And where?)
- Identity + Blogger/Reader = What are my friends interested in at the moment? What are they talking about?
- Identity + Documents = What are they working on? How can I help them?
The opportunity for Google in this space seems immense – at the very least, in terms of the user experience they could provide (which will be essential in quickly building a networks of registered user profiles.) But in Part Two, I will look at the more pressing issue of the threat that Google are facing; that their "Universal Search" engine is broken.
- I haven't included ideas like "Web 2.0" or "Web 3.0" as important stages for a number of reasons; mainly because they aren't technically different to the original World Wide Web. ↩
- As well as profiles they have created, users will also have had profiles created for them; for example, websites using cookies for their own website analytics, ad networks using cookie tracking to offer frequency capping or behavioural targeting, or cookies used to measure or attribute the effectiveness of online advertising. ↩