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Summary:

In a memo to Google staff, new CEO and co-founder Larry Page says employee bonuses are effectively on the line if the company’s efforts to add more social features don’t succeed. But the Google co-founder may find that you can’t threaten people into being social.

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There have been signs over the past few months that Google is feeling the pressure to step up its social efforts — the +1 features it announced a week ago being just one of them. But the clearest indication yet is a memo from newly-minted CEO Larry Page that told employees their bonuses are effectively on the line if the company’s social efforts don’t work. The Google co-founder may see it as a carrot, but many of his employees are likely to see it as a stick — and you can’t threaten people into being social.

In a nutshell, Page’s memo (the existence of which we have confirmed independently), tells staff that 25 percent of their annual bonuses are at risk if Google’s social efforts aren’t successful. It’s positioned as an incentive, but given the company’s track record with social features, odds are that staffers will lose rather than win. Page’s move feels similar to what Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff discussed last year at GigaOm’s Net:Work conference, which was a plan to compensate his staff based in part on the value of their contributions through the company’s internal Twitter-style Chatter network. As I mentioned at the time, that kind of approach has a number of drawbacks — including incentivizing the wrong kind of behavior.

If nothing else, Page’s move makes Google seem increasingly desperate when it comes to the social sphere. The company has tried to get things moving by launching features such as Buzz and the ill-fated Google Wave but has had little or no traction with regular users. And the +1 network seems to be designed primarily to influence Google search, rather than to actually encourage users to socialize with each other. In that sense, it’s another sign of former CEO Eric Schmidt’s strategy of adding social as a “layer” to existing products.

As we’ve written before, the contrast between Google’s approach and Facebook’s approach couldn’t be more stark: Facebook was designed to be social from the ground up. Social features are the core functionality of the system, not something that gets bolted on after the fact. Google has spent the vast majority of its life not really caring about social features, and it shows. As Om has argued, social just doesn’t seem to be in Google’s DNA, and so far, there are no signs that it has been able to splice that kind of knowledge in from elsewhere.

The risk for Google is that as social networking becomes a larger force, advertisers are becoming much more interested in relationships with Facebook and Twitter than they are in pursuing search deals or advertising keywords.

Social search is the other part of the equation Google needs to be concerned about. The web giant has added real-time results to search — which consist primarily of Twitter results, since Facebook doesn’t allow Google to crawl its data — but that also feels grafted on, rather than something that fits naturally into what the company is doing. Facebook has yet to make any major strides in search, apart from partnering with Microsoft and Blekko, and it’s not clear what form Facebook search would take if and when it appears, but it is still a risk. It’s arguably a lot easier for a social giant to add search functions than it is for a search giant to get social.

Will Larry Page’s attempt to rally the troops and incentivize them to get social actually have some tangible impact on Google’s ability to succeed in this area? That remains to be seen, but I’m skeptical. I think Google staffers are more likely to resent these moves rather than feel inspired, and resentment isn’t a great foundation for a new social effort.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Nick M

  1. There’s a key difference now and this really is a bold move for a company that has so far failed to gain any social traction.

    What’s different now? Why should they succeed this time round?

    It’s all about the approach. We’ve got social networks coming out of our ears so why try to reinvent the wheel when no-one – and I mean NO-ONE – is going to be able to make a dent in Facebook’s dominance or Twitter’s accessibility.

    Much better to build around your existing services to increase reach, functionality and value.

    As I see it Google is heading for a different type of social and, this time, it might just work.

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    1. I can see your point, Colin — I am not sure that Google’s incremental approach is going to work though. Thanks for the comment.

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    2. That’s what I used to think about microsoft it’s OS and in the corporate world at one time all you really had to support was ie. I never thought anyone would crack that nut, and probably would have made a statement like that, eight years ago. And would be looking pretty foolish right now.

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    3. As Mike Elgan in a post over at computerland.com points out Google needs to provide a Facebook like central command and control panel for users.

      Google’s bottom up approach to social can be catalyzed by a symbiotic relationship with a matching top down social-graph command center for the users convenience, clarity and overview.

      This would not interfere with the distributed social-graph elements that are presently integrated across Google product landscape.

      User could continue to use either or both but they are mutually reinforcing.

      As Chairman Mao pointed out “a revolution is like kicking down a rotten door”. And there is no door more rotten than the present state of social-graph execution on the web today! We have an ocean of rotten forms and rotten functions. Atrociously over complex and under effective social-graph network geometries between participants and even more egregiously poor interface ergonomics. All these badly implemented social graph fads dancing around the mulberry bush in a desperate attempt to distill which social-graph functions are sticky enough and practical enough to be absorbed it the stream of daily mass culture.

      This situation is ripe with opportunity. Distilling and simplifying the core social-graph functions that are ripe for mass-culture adoption is a must. This means clearing out the clutter with a reduced palette of core social-graph tools. This will be one of Googles key challenges as Google is very weak on the perceptual ergonomics necessary to produce a simply, visually clear, user experience.

      They already have a distributed array of embedded social-graph functions from which they can distill and simplify a core set of mass-culture social-graph tools for the rest of us. Mixing this with a top down control panel overview effectively polishes the apple(pun intended). User can then choose to turn social tools on/off within isolated Google products or to utilizes a centralized top down control panel view of their complete Google social-graph party. Google users can then have their embedded social components al carte or they can choose to eat them all together as a complete meal. This is cake and eat it to material!

      Google shouldn’t dally too long though. I am sure Apple is in the wings working away at distilling a core set of mass-market social-graph tools that are an easy to use, easy to look at, transparent commodity.

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  2. It’s not a threat Page is making, he’s just explaining the consequences of Google’s failure to come up with a successful social networking strategy. He’s basically saying profits are at risk due to competition from social networking, and if they don’t come up with a good answer for it, they will make less money and therefore will reduce bonuses. IF Google employees resent the implications that Page is making, they’re probably not the types who rise to the occasion anyway.

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  3. The proper approach was laid out by Arrington months ago: http://alexschleber.amplify.com/2010/06/29/key-excerpts-from-arringtons-spot-on-post-cloning-is-lame-google-should-do-it-to-facebook-anyway/

    This is the reality. Google should have put all of its might behind this at the time that people were rather unhappy about FB’s privacy lassitude… by now, much of that has been forgotten…an opening that was missed.

    I couldn’t quite believed my eyes the other day when I saw what they had just wasted 6+ months on in Google +1. Not a good sign.

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    1. I agree, Alex — +1 may be useful, at least for Google, but it really doesn’t go very far in taking the company towards any true social value I don’t think. Thanks for the comment.

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  4. Dear Gigaom, you can’t threaten CEOs to stay behind.
    Page is introducing a remarkable shift for Google – it’s a long awaited change. And you say “bad bad boy don’t do dat”? Give me a break.

    Executives need to motivate people to do what is right for the company. Please read my full comment here: http://www.socialmedia-academy.com/index.php/2011/04/what-do-you-expect-from-googles-ceo/

    Axel
    http://xeesm.com/AxelS

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  5. Dear GigaOm: That’s what bonuses are for… Success.

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    1. I agree — but to give someone a bonus and then threaten to take it away based on the success of a product over which they have no control seems harsh, and unlikely to achieve much other than lowering morale.

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  6. I can see it now
    Larry Page’s goons, going from one cube to the next
    AK47’s at their hip
    “DId you leak the memo?”

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  7. It hasn’t been in their DNA for the last 3 or 4 years but that is mostly because they haven’t been throwing the heavy hitting staff at it until the middle of last year. They’ll always struggle and their efforts to date have been poor but with this amount of effort they are going to have to make some inroads. Facebook have such an advantage though and if anything they are pulling further and further away by the day. It shows how worried Google are that they are now splicing social in to their core products of search and ads. It’s going to be an interesting couple of years

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  8. your headline is misleading. Even if the memo is true, he’s threatening his staff to produce results, not threatening them into being social. Yes, it’s a stick, but it’s not news, many CEOs use it.

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    1. It is news because Google is (was) known for allowing employees use 20% of their time on the projects “they liked”; which is a clear distinctive factor for Google. If what the article says is true, then it seems to go against the way Google used to motivate its employees.

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  9. I don’t understand why everyone is so fired up about this. He isn’t threatening their salaries or their jobs – he said their BONUS was at stake! Any company I have ever worked for from Fortune 500 Ingersol Rand to a marketing firm bases salary and bonus on performing your job to meet the business goals of an organization. If you don’t eat the dinner you don’t get the desert. Besides, there are lots of people looking for jobs these days through no fault of their own. If Google employees can’t develop social, or if they can’t learn how to become a social business themselves and be pertinent, then people should not get paid and they should worry about their jobs. Other Enterprise organizations are clearly taking this seriously like Kraft Food and Cisco, etc. If you want to have a competitive advantage you need to become a social business and transformation can be difficult.

    Wendy
    xeesm.com/wendysoucie

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  10. The question is how much are engineers driven by monetary incentives?
    There is factor, sure. Same as sales? Doubt it.
    I know of people who where offered double the income to work for Oracle, yet they stayed. Why? According to them they could learn something, mostly PH.D’s and Masters of a weird Art called CS. Did I mention I really, really dislike Oracle. But that was then, doubt it has changed much for hardcore engineers, though.

    In other words your really hardcore guys will go, BS. But if you would give them a social data structure to play with and a strategy to think about, you might be surprised what they can do. My incentive to engineering was always. THINK.

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