This week’s news from Google was the most exciting thing I’ve heard from the company in years. After languishing with social and its utter failures with both Google Wave and Google Buzz, the company is putting an intriguing product to market: a social network.
For years, people across the tech industry have beat the same drum, almost taunting Google about the strategic value social could bring to the company if only they had the right answer to Facebook. And now as it seems that Google might just have the firepower to take on their Palo Alto rivals, we all want to know: will it work?
The broadcast social network
Facebook’s strongest asset, in my opinion, is the social graph. And Facebook’s biggest challenge is the social graph. And Facebook is aware of it. Users around the world are massively friending each other on Facebook, thus, spamming their social graph and making it weaker and more diluted.
Look at a typical Facebook user — a college student. On his friends list he has his dorm mates, his high school friends, his mother, his girlfriend and old teachers. He likely doesn’t want to share the same updates, photos and videos with each group of people (say, for example, his silver-medal performance in the Beer Olympics). So he is either forced to block certain people from seeing his updates (sorry, mom!) or censor himself by not posting at all. While that might be wise for our young collegian, it’s not good business for Facebook.
Facebook tried to solve for this problem by pushing Facebook Groups, which was designed to allow for sharing among smaller groups of friends, but it just didn’t catch on with users. Why not? Facebook has built its brand, from the ground up, as a one-to-many social network. Facebook has features for sharing among smaller groups of people, but the status update is by far the most popular and most commonly used way to share. It has always been about broadcasting to the world, much the same as Twitter.
Many large, successful companies, including Facebook, refuse to accept that it is very hard to change your brand position in users’ minds. Just as users don’t see Facebook as a place to find jobs, it will be very hard, if not impossible, to expect users to see Facebook as the place for them to create circles of connections.
Keep it to your inner circle
The need for Google+ is obvious. Just as with real-life interactions, sometimes we don’t want to broadcast to the world. Sometimes we want to show different personas to different groups of people. Google, in a shrewd move, is finally addressing a need that Facebook has been unable to fulfill. It is building its social brand — from the ground up — as a social network that allows users to place barriers between their friendship groups, so users can feel more comfortable sharing with those groups.
I think that when the Google brains sat down in a conference room to have their kick-off meeting for the new social strategy, the first question they asked was: What’s Facebook’s weakest point? Google is focusing its social network around the concept of “circles” since it wants to position its network as a more organized one-to-many social network from the get go. Users will still need to drag and drop friends into groups, but here they might actually be willing to do so.
Taking it one step further, I think an even more innovative approach to group social networking will ultimately emerge. Companies like Katango, which applies algorithms that add structure to social data, will eliminate nearly all of the friction associated with manually dropping friends into groups.
Clearly Google has a long way ahead of it. A good product and massive reach are not enough to overcome Facebook’s dominant position. Google is solving for the persistant problems in the social graph and I do think it’s on to something by challenging Facebook’s shotgun approach to social networking. Where Google’s two previous social endeavors failed, the third time might just be the charm.