Why Google+ is faking it

Donec Fietis Simulate

For those that don’t know, my background is in law.... Lawyers are notorious for being boring. One of the manifestations of this condition is that we love Latin.Most lawyers don't actually know any Latin - they just like to repeat short, nice sounding phrases (think spells in Harry Potter). Lawyers call these phrases maxims.Donec Fietus Simulate is (very) loosely translated from Latin as fake it till you make it. The phrase is the best description I can come with for the current role of Google+ in social media.

Google’s approach to innovation

Google has always been known as an innovator. All of their products have taken existing industries and turned them over on their heads, not with revolutionary thinking, but with incremental improvements. People love Google products because they’re simple and they solve people’s problems.The "people's problems" that Google typically solves are those created by other service providers. Before Google search, there was Alta Vista, before Gmail, there was Hotmail, before Android there was iPhone. In each case, Google has entered a market dominated by one or more players, solved problems and either taken the whole market or established a virtually unassailable cornerstone share.Because constant innovation is so central to its business model, Google is unique in its capacity and willingness to respond quickly to market feedback on its products. Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn suffer from the lack of ability to replicate this approach:

  • Facebook’s attitude to privacy, well documented in the last two years, arises as a result of its dominant market position. With over 750,000,000 users, Facebook sees itself holding all the cards. Changes are often made without consultation or notice, there is little regard for the developer community and the usual response to regulatory or private protest is stonewalling.
  • LinkedIn’s focus on a particular niche is both a strength and a weakness. Because of its increasing user base and the “professional focus” of its product, LinkedIn’s capacity to rapidly innovate and enter new areas of the social media market is limited.This does not detract from the viability of LinkedIn’s business model or its utility as a professional networking tool. However, the company’s capacity to enter into new consumer market areas (e.g. location based offers, discounts etc.) is limited.
  • As with LinkedIn, Twitter focuses on a niche: unlike LinkedIn, this niche is not a market based focus, but a functional focus. Twitter was and at this stage continues to be, a micro blogging platform and this limits the company’s ability to effectively leverage significant new opportunities in a meaningful way.

The proof is in the proverbial pudding: Google+ launched in the last two months with a feature-set that addressed a number of concerns with Facebook’s privacy model (read about circles here) as well as introducing some major technological innovations (read about Google+ group "hangouts" here). Facebook’s response to the new network is apparent from the major overhaul it has announced in the last month – largely replicating the new privacy paradigm from Google+ as well as fast tracking a number of its own previously rumoured innovations.

Facebook is worried. And it should be.

Most commentary in the market tends to focus on Google+ being a tool for privacy advocates, developers and Facebook users to use as leverage in creating major changes to Facebook’s structure and approach. I believe this is drastically underestimating the competitive threat that Google+ poses to Facebook’s dominance of the market.

Remember Myspace?

It seems to me that collective memory is very short: less than 4 years ago MySpace was the dominant social network and Facebook was a niche “College Directory” – in Mark Zuckerburg’s own words. Fast forward to today, MySpace is a ghost town headed up by an unlikely Justin Timberlake.In the last three months, Google+ has usually been dismissed as a gimmick – “People are on Google+ to talk about Google+”. Myself, I have not visited the network for the last three weeks. I visit Facebook on a daily basis.And yet, this is not the end of the story. Thinking back to two years ago when I first signed up to Facebook, I would have accessed the network at most once a fortnight – mostly to respond to friend requests.For me Facebook was always there in the background, but it didn’t play a particularly important part in my life. I believe this is the experience many had with Facebook. Over time, Facebook’s significant user base, encouraged by network effects began to develop a voice – to the point where 33% of all content shared online is shared via Facebook. A similar story has played out with LinkedIn, which I joined 18 months ago. Until three months ago, it sat unused – I now access it on a daily basis.All this might give you an indication of how much time I waste on the average day, but I believe my experience is not unique.What Google has in Google+ is a prototype that works and that has had almost universally positive feedback - Google “gets social”.

Google’s Massive User Base

Google’s vast array of products (think Google Search, Google Maps, Gmail, Google Offers) are being overhauled to create tight integration with Google+ as well as making the whole ecosystem work as a cohesive unit. The combined user base of Google’s product is still larger than Facebook’s total user base.Google understands that in order to survive online it needs to take a significant stake in the social space. The level of integration with its existing products will ensure that Google+, steadily and quietly begins to generate content. Content leads to traffic, traffic leads to user activity, user activity leads to network effects.Google knows how to play the game. As the company has demonstrated time and time again with the other markets that it has entered, Google starts small but is able to steadily establish a significant market position. This is why Facebook has reacted so quickly to address old problems that should have been dealt with months or years ago. Expect Facebook to show a very different face (excuse the pun?) in the coming months.Whether Google+ is Google’s last word on social media or not, anyone serious about achieving creating a long term social media strategy will need to take Google into account as a major player in the social space.Google+ might be faking it now – my bet is, they’ll be “making it” in the next year or two.

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