Today, Google announced its renewed concept for social media – after the failed Google Buzz, it’s Google’s second attempt to knock the Facebook juggernaut off course.
Google+ has a few interesting features – some of which might actually work better than Facebook’s. The idea of ‘circles’ especially, a very intuitive way to organise your friends, colleagues and relatives, seems nice. See the video here:
But there’s a few fundamental reasons why Google faces a stiff uphill battle:
Most people (and by now, business too) have invested a lot of hours in their Facebook profile. It has the right pictures, the right friends; a carefully selected set of games, quizzes, groups and YouTube videos.
Do you want to start all over, to end up with basically the same mix? The same friends, the same pictures and YouTube videos? Why would you? Google+ looks a lot like a ‘me too’ product, and most ‘me too’ products don’t dethrone the market leader.
There’s a compelling reason that Google wants us to switch to this new social network: Facebook is off limits to its search robots. Google doesn’t like this Chinese wall, and it doesn’t want to let Facebook occupy “the center of the web”. For the user, the only difference will be: who makes money with advertising?
It’s clear that building critical mass will be everything. I would like to see some figures on the Google +1 button that was released recently to build some momentum for Google+. Businesses have been investing a lot of money in getting websites up to date with Tweet buttons, Facebook buttons. Will they feel compelled to add yet another button? I’m not sure. In action buttons too, the race for screenshare is on – and Twitter and Facebook may have already won the war.
Even inside Google, an engineers referred to the project as ‘chasing taillights’, noting that me-too-ism has never been a strength for Google (source: Wired).
On the other hand, the Wired story says, Google is very good at determining what is relevant to us and what is not: it’s been refining its technology to do so in the last decade. This advantage in raw algorithm power might give them an edge eventually. Also, it’s clear that Google is trying to incorporate the best features from both Facebook and Twitter into one – probably hoping to make both of them obsolete at the same time.
In his excellent ‘In the plex’ about life in Google’s headquarters, author Steven Levy describes Google’s almost visceral aversion to ‘cute’ design. As Levy describes it, the stark Google homepage is much more than just a useability issue: the stark design – the absence of design – is very much a statement by Google.
The fact that almost all Google products look so dehumanized – that it could have been designed by an algorithm – is something of a badge of honor to Google. Google loves algorithms. Geeks do too. Real humans are somewhat messier than Google engineers. They love cute stuff. People just love branding (see also: Apple), and Google does not tend to understand this well. According to Stephen Levy, this branding and design problem was partly the reason why Google resorted to buying YouTube when it became clear that Google Video wouldn’t gain traction. YouTube was a fun, quirky brand. Google video was a project.
In the video for Google+, you can see that Google at least is trying this time. It’s clear that they have given some thought to a rounded, clean but ‘human’ design rather than something an algorithm would come up with.
(Levy’s Wired story confirms this: “Traditionally, Larry Page has been a blood foe of “swooshy” designs and animations geared to delight users. But Page has signed off on the pleasing-pixel innovations in Circles, including a delightful animation when you delete a circle.")
The friend ‘circles’ are an intuitive, and seemingly fun way of organising friends, colleagues and relatives, but the problem is of course that Facebook can copy this idea and implement it by next week. Just like the rest of the newish features that Google brings – that’s the beauty of being market leader.
Remember point 1: “who needs another Facebook?” The question should be: “who needs a Facebook alternative when there’s no real guarantee that Google won’t shut it down in a few months or years?”
Facebook at least gives the impression that it intends to stick around for a few years. Google has a tendency to launch projects as ‘beta’ (at least they chose the title ‘project’ for this instead of the doomed-before-we-begin 'beta'). It will be hard to gain traction when you give people the impression that your heart isn’t completely in it. Does Google Buzz still exist? I’m not sure. (Apparently, it does. It’s now a feature in Gmail, where you can post status updates.).
It will be hard for Google to convince users to go all in on this new ‘social network’, when it’s not going all in itself – although some at Google seem to disagree: in his Wired story, Steven Levy does have an engineer at Google describe the move as a ‘bet the company’ move. And Larry Page seems to have made 25 % of Google personnel bonuses dependent on its succes in its social efforts.
Funny: in the same blog, Google seems to mock the idea of needing to ‘kill Facebook’. There seems to exist a consumer satisfaction study that shows that most Facebook users rate Facebook “barely higher than the IRS”. All in all, interesting times ahead in social media. We'll keep you posted about Google+.