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Summary:

There’s been a lot of sound and fury about Google and its handling of Google+ branded pages, but there is a serious issue underneath the griping, namely that Google can make or break a company’s presence online by virtue of its control over the web-search market.

There’s been a lot of sound and fury about the way Google has approached branded (i.e., non-personal) pages on its new Google+ social network. Much of it is a symptom of internecine warfare among the big tech blogs, some of whom waited to launch branded pages and got sandbagged by what they say is the web giant’s flip-flopping. But there is a serious issue underneath the griping, which is that Google can make or break a company’s presence online by virtue of its control over the web-search market — something Google+ is almost certain to become an integral part of.

When Google first launched its new social platform a couple of weeks ago, a number of media brands — including Sesame Street and the tech blog Mashable — rushed to set up pages on the network as a way of staking their claim, in the same way that many have set up what used to be called Facebook “fan” pages. But while Facebook allows corporate entities to have a presence on its network, Google said that it wasn’t ready for branded pages just yet. Instead, it asked most companies to wait, and said it would be rolling them out over the next couple of months after a trial with a few select entities such as Ford.

The Google+ land rush

Not surprisingly, perhaps, some companies didn’t feel like waiting, or taking down the pages they already had, so they just left them there. This caused a lot of confusion about what Google’s strategy was going to be exactly — would it grandfather the pages that already existed, or would it simply nuke them and force those companies to create new pages and build up their follower base from scratch again?

The confusion was compounded when Google started deleting branded or non-personal pages this week: some pages, including the page belonging to Mashable, remained in place while others vanished. Then the blog executed a clever trick by changing the name of its page to the name of founder and CEO Pete Cashmore — something that allowed it to retain all of its followers. This sent competitor TechCrunch into a frenzy of outrage, and caused Google-watcher Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land to write an open letter about the ill will caused by its Google+ screwup (TechCrunch’s fake personal page has already been deleted).

This may all seem a little like the cool kids fighting over who gets the parking spot closest to the door of the high school, but there is a serious issue at the center of the dispute, which TechCrunch writer MG Siegler hinted at in his post — and that is Google’s ability to create what amounts to a “suggested user list” for companies on its new social network. The SUL was something that Twitter created early on as a way of trying to help new users find accounts to follow, but it caused a lot of controversy because it led to some users getting millions of followers very quickly.

Google+ already a major player

A list of preferred accounts may not have seemed like a big deal when Twitter was just a tiny plaything for nerds, but it became a big benefit when the network grew to become a significant distribution platform for news and other content. The issue for brands is that Google+ could recreate that problem — or opportunity — in spades, because in just a few weeks it has already become so massive.

Depending on how you measure it, the speed at which Google+ has grown dwarfs just about any other social network, including Facebook and Twitter, and that’s because Google has been able to unleash a giant, built-in promotional engine via its various services such as Gmail, Picasa and so on. Integration with email was undoubtedly a huge launchpad, and the toolbar that appears at the top of Google pages when users are signed in, directing them to their Google+ feed, keeps the engagement levels high.

image via Leon Haland

With 20 million users or so already, Google has gone from zero to being a potential strong contender in the social networking game. But it’s not just the size of the network that’s important — it’s how the activity on those Google+ pages get interpreted by Google search, and how that affects page rank and all the other parts of the company’s black-box algorithms. It’s not clear how much the social signals coming from Google+ will be integrated, but there is no question that doing this was a big driver behind the company’s interest in doing social at all.

In other words, Google’s missteps or tweaking of Google+ features aren’t just of interest to a few tech-obsessed social-networking nerds. Could the way it has handled corporate pages even become an issue in the FTC inquiry into the company’s monopolistic and/or anti-competitive behavior? Possibly. But make no mistake — while some may see Google+ as just another copycat social network, it has the potential to affect the bread and butter of companies that do business online, and that is not a trivial issue.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Mark Strozier and Leon Haland

  1. Its good to see that Google is trying to make inroads into the social networking scene but social networking is more than just a button,ask Facebook.Google+ is simply a button and no-one spends time socializing with friends on Gmail or GBuzz.On the other hand people spend time on facebook each and every day,either sending some wall posts or playing games online such as Farmville,CityVille or Angry Birds.

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    1. I don’t see how Google+ could be referred to as a “button”. Being that the integration is so seamless with Android, and Picasa, etc I find it to be way more useful (just in its beta stage) than Facebook has ever been.

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    2. EntrepreNerd Friday, July 22, 2011

      You are confusing Google+ (http://plus.google.com) with the Google +1 button. Google+ is a full blown social network, and so much more. Give it a try, you will like it.

      As for the article, I liked it, save for one huge exaggeration, which was, “led to some users getting millions of followers very quickly.” Millions? Really? Try a touch over 100,000, which is nothing compared to the number of followers the tech sites are going to get. The entire thing is a non-issue. Google stated the rules and many companies chose to break them. Get over it people.

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      1. Thanks — that comment was referring to the impact of the Twitter suggested-user list, not the Google+ brand pages.

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  2. Matthew, yours is the best attempt yet that I’ve seen to make sense out of what most of us don’t care about. Here’s my open letter to Danny Sullivan in response to his open letter to Google:

    https://plus.google.com/101886706065800845176/posts/7zU9LBrpFiy

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    1. Thanks, Bob — I’ve heard the same thing from a number of people. I still think there is an important issue there, but I realize it sounds like whining by a bunch of tech insiders to many.

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      1. alexschleber Friday, July 22, 2011

        I tend to agree with Danny, what’s important about this is not whether or not some tech blogs/newsbrands get to be first in line and build platform share, it’s about what it says about Google still not thinking these things through.

        They had 1 year+…

        More detail here: https://plus.google.com/u/0/112964117318166648677/posts/BqEWxQs6qiT

        “…In essence, the very idea of creating a separate sort of specialty profile is a tacit admission that the Circles model can’t handle all cases. And I for one can’t figure out why Google thinks this:

        No one on G+ thus far appeared confused as to when a profile was a business/brand (or another assumed name for that matter), and what to do about it: Either not Circle and ignore, or “set the listener” by Circling them. And as long as muting, blocking, and other much needed filters are implemented the right way and working, none of this should be a problem. Period.

        The latter is what the G+ team should be concentrating on, because if this service isn’t truly workable for all users, then none of this brand profile business is going to matter anyway, is it?

        P.S. Most people like Scoble and Chris Brogan are also (personal) brands, what about them? Chris has even already offered up his first paid Webinar on “G+ business strategy”…

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  3. This topic has filled up my inbox/voicemail/etc. with questions and concerns from big/traditional companies. I have had more response than any other gadget, OS or app launch ever.

    The combination of the power of Google and the fact that companies have finally realized that social tools work, is creating a firestorm. The madness is just beginning…

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  4. So let me get this straight, Google tells companies to not set up corporate pages in a system that is still in testing, some companies do it any way. They get removed and now are upset… how is this at all Google’s fault.

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    1. Exactly my point. Thanks for stating this. I think so many blogs and tech journalists are simply trying to make a story out of this when it isn’t one.

      Is there a chance that Google could do something evil with this and mess with businesses that want to get into a new search position? Sure. But they go out of their way with standard search to not allow that to happen so why would they here?

      They simply want to allow this to be about people right now and have said they will allow businesses in later. Simple. You don’t want to follow the rules you don’t have to be allowed in the private beta.

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      1. Thank you, obviously if everyone mentioned this little tidbit, there would be no story, no eyeballs, no mass hysteria, no money for blogs to make, because there would be no story to write.

        So what do they do? make a non-story a story.

        It’s like if I were to rob a bank and then I get arrested and placed in Jail, then started complaining. The rules were clear! Yes the rules changed, but they were clear. Break the rules, pay the price. Simple as that. AND EVERYONE KNEW THE RULES BEFOREHAND. Techcrunch wrote about the rules. There was a process. They warned. They chose to look the other way, and now they are complaining? that is fucktarded

        This just boils down to eyeballs and money for the journalists making this into a big deal. You didn’t see sesame street and ford whining. No just mashable and Danny Sullivan (and Techcrunch to some extent) Now we can thrown in GigaOM in the mix also. At least Techcrunch was somewhat honest and upfront about it.

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  5. NewsReader Dude Friday, July 22, 2011

    This article was a great reminder of why I quit reading both Mashable and TechCrunch months ago.

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  6. Here’s a great response to this article. https://plus.google.com/117245298692605482770/posts/2B4FY6MPh7C

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  7. Best post on what is the issue – and better explained. Only issue is the graph showing growth.

    It’s misleading and spin (in particular with Facebook). Facebook rolled out slowly to colleges across the country, a purposeful slow growth. G+ is just a slam open the doors strategy, so who knows if it’ll be really ever consumer or just business rants.

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    1. Thanks, Jeremy — and that’s a fair point about the growth of Google+, although there is no question that it has grown incredibly quickly. The company had a built-in platform, but the growth is still a reality that Twitter and Facebook have to deal with.

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  8. Has everyone forgotten that Google+ is in limited field test?

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  9. Google seems to have gotten it right this time. I think + will be a winner and take second place. Page’s Pepsi to Zuk’s Coke

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  10. Nice article, Mathew. I think that Google+ will rapidly open to brands once all are allowed in. I also agree that the +1 button will spread rapidly due to the fear of a loss in search ranking for many site owners.

    We put together a few thoughts on Google+ for brands as well. Here’s a quick link: http://www.slideshare.net/PublicisModemUK/google-8624748

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  11. It’s a big deal because Vic Gundutra doesn’t think it is.

    These guys were so insulated, (nearly smug, detached from reality) on TC.tv last night, that it tells me Google is still clueless.

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  12. I have to agree that they have not handled it that well but outside of tech blog circles it might not have that big of an effect. What would be worse is if Google let all the brands, publishers and blogs pile in early in the wrong way and suddenly it was just full of content and promotion. If anything they should have just been upfront and said we are not allowing any brands or businesses on here for the first year. Google will tie in things like Adwords and Analytics from the start and make this an essential tool that everybody relies on. We will probably all look back and wonder what all the fuss was about

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  13. Scott Brewer Friday, July 22, 2011

    It’s a Social Network, not a Commercial Network.

    I find the lack of brand accounts refreshing on Google+. This is one of the things that I dislike about Facebook, and to a smaller degree Twitter. It’s ok to advertise, but the ‘users’ of a social network should be people, interacting with other people.

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  14. Charlie Anzman Friday, July 22, 2011

    Mathew – I’m with Google on this one. They’re positivvelt on the right path with circles. That’s a win. The company still derives most of it’s revenue from search. It’s THEIR option whether or not to monetize ‘brand’ streams. If the traction of Google+ continues …. that would just make sense. As for the rest of us … It’s our choice whether or not to use Twitter, Facebook or whatever and, in turn, create a real products for these companies. Going back to the AOL early days but now with respect to Twitter and Facebook … I seriously doubt the analysts estimates are anywhere close. Many accounts are inactive. Very inactive …. and even on Google+, I discover numerous accounts ever day with absolutely no posts. This is a lot of screaming about nothing. The privacy mess with Buzz was much more important

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  15. If Google goes before the FTC it should be for legitimate reasons. Not because of brands complaining about their social profiles.

    As for Microsoft bringing up an anti-competitive claim in the linked article. That in itself should be termed anti-competitive. Who stands to gain the most from Google getting in trouble?

    It is debatable whether Microsoft are even competing. They seem perfectly happy for their wallet, lawyers and Facebook’s engineers to do the heavy lifting.

    Pot calling the kettle black?

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  16. Well if you guys (tech bloggers)make it a big deal then its a big deal otherwise the common people dont consider it a big deal.

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  17. I don’t understand; the blogs broke an embargo. What do they expect to happen? Some kind of special treatment?

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  18. So how can Google not attract such comments and reactions. It is the nature of its position that has created this situation. Has Google really prevented competiton in the search market. If so it would not be the first and it would have to go a long way to be the worst (just ask MS) But is it fair to judge the significance of their misteps simply by the magnitude of the shadow they cast over the internet?

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  19. I remember when I was creating personal accounts on facebook for businesses long before they had “business” pages. Not really a big deal…this will all settle in time.

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  20. Google is going to take over the world, resistance is futile

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  21. Mathew, thank you (as always) for your solid coverage. It seems most people responding to this Google+ gaffe as either non-interested or kowtowing and treating Google as “god”-like. The fact is that Google is a publicly held company and that means they are in the big leagues (this isn’t little league Stanford grad school start up land anymore). Its clear as day that Google failed strategically and did not think through ex ante the probability of business interest with expoentnial Google+ growth curves. Why aren’t more people calling out Larry Page who, as CEO, is the fall guy, after booting Eric Schmidt who they originally brought in for “adult supervision” and strategy? There is zero reason why Google+ should have had to renege the G+ business offering. If they had thought this through ahead of time strategically, they would never have gotten the hopes up of thousands of people. Why didn’t Google dogfood by using its own technology to process the voluminous business applications that it received and easily could have predicted it would receive? Isn’t Google known for hiring allegedly smart geniuses after asking job applicants cute little puzzles like “how many golf balls can fit in a school bus”? How embarrassing for Larry Page and his school bus of brainiacs who seemed to concern themselves more with creating Circles than understanding strategy and risk. Here comes the FTC?

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  22. Its just amazing to see how google plus has managed to reach this number of users in just a small time…Personally its really a good social media tool but people still find facebook more friendly

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  23. I think a lot of people forgot that Google Plus is still at Beta and invite only. Give them some time to figure out what’s the best way to present a corporate page on Google Plus.

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  24. People want to be associated with brands and want to do business online. Google may actually have a plan for business pages that addresses various issues with Facebook fan pages. The have tried to roll this out slowly by restricting to invitation only, imagine how fast it would have been without that. Maybe we should wait and see what the full plan is before we judge it.

    And we do all have a choice – we don’t have to connect with businesses on any of these platforms. We could just use it to chat to our friends. I have no idea if there are any figures that tell us how many are just doing that but I bet it’s not many.

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  25. Hmm, google+ is already helping in some huge ways. Is generating traffic to people’s sites or in other cases to their business websites.
    So, when it comes down to having a business profile on Google+ is just going to have be on thier time and terms.

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