The final part in a series of "Things to know about Google+". Catch up with part one, part two, part three and part four.
There are two things that make it tricky to evaluate Google+ at the moment;
- Its a social network, but invitation-only. The people on it are tech-obsessed early adopters. Once the service has been opened up and Google are promoting it outside the tech/media circles, this will change. So it can't be judged on the content/community.
- The software is incomplete; with Google billing it as a "technical field trial", and other statements and indications from the company about its future, it seems clear that there is more to Google's plans than Circles and Streams. (I set out a few examples of these 'networked services' in Part One
That said, by looking at what Google has revealed about their plans for the service and their other activities in related areas, we can make some reasonable assumptions about the benefits that Google+ will bring to users, and therefore the sort of people who will be using it. The most obvious audience consists of two related groups;
Existing Google users – not just people who use the search engine, but people who have set up profiles and create content on Blogger and YouTube, who have set up Google Reader and use it to share links, or are using Google Groups to stay in touch with particular interest-based communities.
Content creators and attention seekers; for anyone interested in building visibility in SEO (for example, bloggers, journalists and celebrities), Google+ will bring clear benefits. I mentioned in Part Two that Google has introduced authorship markup – technology that allows authors to identify themselves in their work online by linking it to a page that represents their online identity, which will then be promoted in relevant search listings performed by people who are 'connected' to the author, or people who have +1'd pages on their site.
How will Google+ be used?
Right now, the conversation seems to be dominated by talk of Google+ (in much the same way that for quite some time, the conversation on Twitter was dominated by the subject of Twitter.) At the moment, the profiles with the largest number of followers appear to be technology bloggers such as Robert Scoble and Pete Cashmore, who are bringing networks over from other communities (ie. Twitter.) A key indicator of when the platform has moved on will be when we start seeing mainstream celebrities bringing their followers over – which in turn will give more mainstream users a reason to migrate.
In this sense, it seems likely that public posts on Google+ will make it more closely resemble a blogging platform like Tumblr than a typical social networking site.
But on the other hand, the more 'social' side of Google+ seems designed to encourage more private discussion. The design of "circles" forces their use – Facebook and Twitter both have 'lists' functionality, but users can easily use either services without even knowing about them – let alone using them. On the other hand, every time you add a friend/contact in Google+, you are forced to choose one or more circles to put them in.
How people use online social services is shaped – at least in part – by the way they see others using them. On Facebook, while it is possible to use privacy settings to share things with limited people (for example, with only your friends, or friends of friends, or only a selected group of friends), you have no way of seeing what other people's sharing settings are. The assumption is therefore that everyone else can see what you can see. Google+ handles this differently; it is made clear whether a particular post is "public", or limited to be visible to certain other people.
In combination with the "forced behaviour" around Circles, these seem likely to encourage more selective sharing of a more personal nature with one's own friends and contacts.
The privacy controls seem likely to be an appeal for unhappy Facebook users. A survey in the US by ESET/Harris Interactive revealed some interesting points about attitudes and behaviours around social networking sites. It found that 69% are "concerned about security on social network sites", and 67% are concerned about privacy. This might lead you to think that these would have a visible impact on behaviour, but the same survey found the opposite to be true; most people don't seem to act on these concerns. The majority (55% of users) say that they update their privacy settings less than once every six months; 20% have never updated their privacy settings at all, and a further 19% do it less then once a year. (On the security side, 48% of users say that they haven't changed their password in the last year.)
So whether Facebook users will migrate en masse to Google+ depends on a number of factors and remains to be seen; but its difficult to see a good reason for a typical Facebook user to want to move across. While features like Hangouts may be a good incentive to set up a profile, so long as most of your friends are sharing most of their content on Facebook, there is still going to be a strong draw to spend time in that network. But for other kinds of networks that users might want to keep separate from Facebook (such as the professional networks and groups we see on LinkedIn, or looser online communities that users might want to keep separate from their "real life" Facebook communities) there might be a draw in Google+.
Although its worth noting that for some communities, Google+ will not be interesting at all – there is a fierce debate about the weaknesses of a system that forbids anonymity/pseudonymity, as this long but insightful post on Google+ explains . While for any other business building a social website this probably wouldn't be much of an issue, the scale of Google's online operations, their importance in search and the impact on other services makes this a delicate area for them to balance.
The role for brands
Given these expected benefits, anyone interested in looking at 'key influencers' (eg. high-profile bloggers), particularly in the technology sectors should be keeping a close eye on the Google+ platform over the next few months as it develops, both in terms of the application(s), and the communities that spring up.
Business profiles are expected to be rolled out "in the next couple of months", and brands are being advised not to use personal profiles to set up 'fake' brand profiles, as they will be deleted by Google. At the moment, we don't really know what these profiles will look like; there seems to be interesting opportunities, depending on how Google wants the platform to be used. At the least, I would expect to see tools to help more than one user manage a company profile, and "power features" to help manage brands followers (ie. similar to Circles, but set up for audience segmentation – eg. to distinguish a brands employees, customers, prospective leads etc.)
There might also be a role for brands to help manage different types of circles as part of a service. For example, an estate agent might manage conversations between a buyer, seller, lawyers, mortgage advisors and removal companies, or a car dealership might help manage discussions between the buyer, insurance companies, finance providers and so on.
(This slideshare presentation from Publicis Modem UK talks about a few other interesting ideas for what Google+ for brands might look like.)
I would also expect to see close links with company own websites, for example, tools to automatically feed content from a blog or website into Google+. Unlike Facebook (which wants companies to set up and manage Facebook pages, as it gives them incentives to use Facebook's advertising platform to drive traffic to their pages), Google has less restrictions on where it can place display advertising. If businesses want to advertise their Google+ presence, they will presumably be able to do so through YouTube, AdWords and DoubleClick. Because of this, I wouldn't be surprised to see advertising presence on Google+ limited to a simple extension of AdWords (like Gmail, for example), or perhaps like Google Reader, a completely ad-free environment that boosts engagement with the open web (and the advertising opportunities that lie elsewhere.)
In addition, in another quiet move which will help website owners identify and track social engagement on their own sites, Google has released a new social tracking function within Google Analytics (Google's free website traffic analytics tool.) This will enable website owners to look at users who are 'socially engaged'– are they more likely to spend more time on their site, make more purchases, look at particular types of content etc. This isn't just for Google+ users (although the +1 button is the only social action it tracks by default) – it can also track other actions such as the Facebook "like" plugin and the Twitter tweet button.
However, brands who have 'company spokespeople' should look into establishing personal profiles on Google+ (assuming that they already have a similar profile on other networks like Facebook and Twitter, and/or using a blogging platform to build an "owned" social space), enabling users who are already building a presence to engage and share content in the same way.
On the other hand, sharing on Google+ looks likely to be more discrete/controlled than on Facebook. For example, a 'like' on Facebook is both a recommendation/mark of authority, and at the same time a 'share' with their followers. On Google+, a +1 is being compared as a 'like' equivalent, but it doesn't broadcast anything into friends' streams; if users choose to share a piece of content on Google+, then it is a deliberate 'sharing' action. This subtle but significant distinction will have a large impact on the visibility of brands' activities. (A recent comScore whitepaper found that "friends of fans" constitute an audience 34 times larger than "fans" – the equivalent number on Google+ will probably be considerably smaller.)
The limited release of Google+ masks the scale of Google's investment and future plans in the social sphere. Make no mistake – this might be a "technical preview", but it isn't another Wave that can be packaged up and handed to someone else; this is something that will both underpin Google's future projects, and tie together their existing services. Anyone with an interest in the technological side of Google's developments should be keeping a close eye on this project.
From a media perspective though, the picture is slightly different; it seems unlikely that a mainstream audience will rapidly flock to the service. But the value will no doubt lie in the value of the users; the bloggers, journalists and key influencers, and the brands who choose to engage in this environment.
As the role for brands' pages become clearer over the next few months, we will be working alongside our clients to ensure that we are testing and learning about the value that Google's new platform is building and the opportunities it presents for social media strategies, SEO, and both display and search advertising. But most importantly for me will be watching how it affects on users online behaviours as the impact of this new 'social Google' becomes clearer.