Friday, June 3, 2011

Plus What? Google's New +1 Feature Increments Its Social Media Value Gradually

The old saying goes "To a fellow with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." You might say along those lines that for Google, every problem looks like an opportunity to make search more valuable. Now, just like the fellow with a hammer, there are things to be said for having a focus. Nails build houses, hold up pictures and do all sorts of useful things. But you'd be pretty sorry to try to mistake a screw for a nail. With that in mind, I wonder whether Google's newly launched "+1" content recommendation feature is really a social media feature, or just a hook to get Web sites more affiliated with Google searches, or in fact the first step in getting a much more complex strategy in place.

It's safe to say that Google's key brand strength remains its search prowess, even as it has been building up enormous brand equity via its Android mobile operating system and other key online and enterprise initiatives. But it's also safe to say that Google is a highly tainted brand when it comes to social media. Missteps and gaffes in its Google Wave and Buzz launches left many media pundits wagging their tongues at Google's ineptitude in understanding social media and also left far fewer people using them and integrating them into their Web sites. At the same time, social media services like Facebook and Twitter have their badges for content sharing plastered all over Web sites, not to mention magazine ads, billboards and just about every other media imaginable. As much as social media is a battle for content, it's also a battle for co-branding.

So Google has to solve three related but distinct problems; improve search result relevance, find a re-launch point for their social media efforts and get into the Web site social media badging battle with an edge. Keeping their search results, the key to their branding, relevant in an era in which many people rely on social recommendations to discover online content and services has had some particular urgency at Google since Facebook has upped its alliance with Microsoft's Bing search engine to enhance their search results with Facebook-related content and recommendations. The combination of Facebook and Bing is probably the first serious threat that Google has faced to its near-monopoly on people's search mindshare. So priority number one from Google's perspective has to be getting social hooks into search.

The result of these priorities so far is the +1 button. The initial "experiment" launch of +1 several weeks back as a button embedded in Google search results pages was not a strong start. Why would someone recommend a Web page, app or other search-embedded content that they hadn't reviewed yet? That seemed to be a no-starter, an almost Jello-like soft launch to expose the concept to partners and to shake out the plumbing. The social motivation of Google-style +1s also seemed to be rather weak. So, you're telling me I get to recommend content to people but those people have to wait to get my recommendation until they decide to do a search for the types of thing that I just found? It's nice when I find those kinds of recommendations, but it seems a bit like trying to hit a pitched baseball with a paperclip; the chances of getting a Google +1 recommendation in a search result would seem to be rather small, since you tend to search for things that you don't know about, which by definition takes you a bit out of your usual circle of interests, and, most likely, your circle of friends.

The potential counter to this social gap is the "+1" tab in Google Profiles. This tab of saved +1 link bookmarks is separate from the tab that displays Google Buzz links and comments, which in turn has its own "like" sub-tab that shows which Buzz posts a Google Profile owner liked. In the +1 tab, though, the profile owner can't add comments, tagging or anything; it's just a list of links. How, when or why anyone would ever visit this list to find out serendipitously what their friends were +1ing is very unclear, since there's no real opportunity to interact with +1s and no aggregated view of +1s other than in Google search results. So, the +1 tab in Google Profiles is a nice idea, perhaps, but it offers even fewer features than Google Bookmarks or Google Reader for sharing these little nuggets of likable content.

So, if +1 is such a weak social media tool for sharing content, why is it leading the way in Google's enhanced social initiatives? The answer is more clear when you look at the +1 buttons for Web site embedding that were launched this week.  The buttons are bone-simple; click it, and you're done. As you click it, a box next to the button increments a count of people who have +1ed that page of content. Click it again, you can un-+1 it. In other words, +1's primary value is as a content badging system that allows people to endorse content in the style of Facebook "likes" or Digg-ing up content. The buttons are very unobtrusive, and notably non-branded except for the use of Google's familiar primary color scheme.

Why so low-profile? Well, take a look at this example from a +1 badge on a page for Namco's Flight Central, a popular game in Google's Android Market. In addition to the Flight Central brand itself, you see a "tweet" button for Twitter users right under the +1 button. Google wants Web site owners to jump at the search enhancement opportunities of Google's +1 feature without having to force users to choose between Google and other popular social media services - though, notably, favoring Twitter on their own sites. If Facebook is the enemy and Twitter has the other large dollop of mindshare, better to use Twitter for serenipity sharing and use +1 for improving search results - for now.

In taking this low-key, low-branding approach, Google can leverage the strong brand value of its search - everyone Googles, and everyone wants to be found in Google searches - to get webmasters eager for better and more relevant search results placements to spread +1 buttons all over the Web as quickly as possible. The fact that there's no real social media component at this point other than badge increments is great for the Web site owner, in theory, since it provides a clear and simple function that people will get familiar with while not forcing them to choose a new social networking service to do anything more- yet. This leaves the door open for partnerships and acquisitions, but also for a repositioning of other Google social media features once people have a positive feeling about the +1 button. So, for example, in time you could see commenting using Google Buzz infrastructure pop up once the button is in place. Or, it could be configured to allow people to choose which social media service they'd like to use to post or share a comment or link, using the list of social media services that they maintain in their Google Profile. Or, it could have an additional visual cue that would reveal a stream of social media relating to that page in a side window similar to that used today in Google's rather forgotten Sidewiki service. And so on.

Given Google's general approach to social media so far, I am leaning towards this kind of evolutionary approach to linking +1s to social media as Google's core approach, allowing the power of the marketplace to allow Google users to choose where they comment and aggregating their comments via the +1 feature in a way that provides more meaningful search results. Over time, this may give Google Buzz a new entry point for facilitating comments and "lifestreaming" more effectively. Buzz is already a super-aggregator of social media content, enabling people to direct their various social media streams into Buzz for sharing and commenting, though the most active users tend to use Buzz directly. As people become more accustomed to using Google Profiles for adjusting their +1s, they may decide to tune it to display their aggregated social media streams in its Buzz tab, providing more of a one-stop shop for helping their friends to keep in touch with them on either a private or public basis.

This "boil the frog in water slowly so it doesn't jump out" method is not the most exciting approach to doing
better in social media, but with the field so crowded and Google needing to keep feeding its key market advantages in search and mobile platforms, it has little choice but to take this approach for now. But by bit we can expect to see pieces that hook up to +1 buttons more elegantly, each piece eminently "gettable" by the people towards whom they're aimed, each one adding value in unique ways that will help people to change their habits gradually. You can see this incrementalism working already to some degree in Google Buzz. Although far from Facebook's level of total usage, many sites that use Buzz sharing badges show Buzzing at about ten to twenty percent of Facebook likes. That's hardly something for Google to crow about at this point, but it's a decent base from which to work towards a more solid capture of commenting traffic. And since +1 works independent of Buzz, it's not reliant on people using Buzz to get search engine value.

This is a carefully crafted strategy, one which leverages Google's most defensible properties and bases of brand value to build up over time a different way of looking at both Google and at social media. While it's not clear that people will "get" using +1s very quickly, its inobtrusive look should accelerate the willingness of webmasters to implement it and audiences to see it adding value through its use on popular Web sites and, over time, in Google search results and marketplaces. Having bobbled, blown and blasted away many of its attempts at big social media launches thus far, this incremental approach seems to suit Google's culture and brand more effectively, even as its slow pace may madden people expecting flashier things in response to Google's major competitors. The truth is that there are many powerful pieces that Google needs to draw together to make its social media strategy unfold completely. Not easily done, and it may never get done completely, but it's interesting to watch it unfold for now. Given the strength of those other pieces, time may yet be on Google's side.
Post a Comment