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How to Make Google Matter in Social Media

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Just as the consumer Internet has driven technology innovation for the last decade, social media, along with mobile, will be the next. More critically, search and advertising need to tap into the data generated by social media activities to improve relevance and targeting accuracy.

Google has had its share of social media flops, and many smart analysts now think the search just doesn’t have “social” in its nature. But the company’s announcement last week of real-time search, focusing on Twitter and Facebook content, shows what Google should do to remain relevant in social media.

I’m not convinced by the pandas vs. lobsters argument. (Google services are for pandas that roam away; social media is for lobsters who hang around.) Facebook is just as good at, and dependent on, recurring use (that is, frequency) as it is on the duration of any given user session. And even if Google can’t create a social network that keeps users online for longer periods of time, it can still get what it needs from social media by providing core technologies and services.

Platforms and Services

Google should be a provider of APIs and services that feed social media, rather than a social network or other time-sink application. Google learned well from Microsoft, who invented the modern notion of “platform ecosystem” — i.e., a collection of APIs and services other developers built on, with a UI that locked in users. Google innovated in platforms by providing a revenue stream for its ecosystem, and by encouraging free and easy mash-ups. As long as the company can harness the data it needs to fuel search and ad targeting from services, it doesn’t need a social site or app. Search may lose some ground as the dominant navigation paradigm online, but passive stream-watching will never replace it completely.

Strengths Google Should Leverage

To succeed in social, instead of games, Google should focus on APIs and web services that exploit its strongest properties:

  • Search will remain the main navigation means for task-oriented online activities like shopping. And Google just proved it still does search best.
  • Google’s ad networks dominate search and are strong in direct-marketing display. As noted, Google must integrate social data to help power behavioral targeting.
  • Maps are, along with search, Google’s most mash-up-able technology.
  • Android is gaining traction in smartphones, and far more customizable than Apple technology.

Gmail has a solid user base and is a logical entry point for communications services. But neither Wave nor Buzz successfully exploited it. The former because it was complicated and lacked a killer app, the latter because it hasn’t differentiated itself from Twitter or Facebook updates.

What Happens if Google Succeeds?

How would social success for Google affect some of the major players?

  • Facebook has the user base and resources to continue on its own. Its sign-in service is at least the equal of Google’s and its ad selling and serving will likely migrate outside Facebook properties.
  • Twitter ought to adopt Google’s real-time search. Likewise, if Google can figure out how to serve ads effectively against real-time information streams, Twitter should use Google’s solution. Like most media companies, Twitter should focus on selling premium sponsorships and outsource remnant inventory.
  • Microsoft hasn’t emerged as a relevant player in social media, either through APIs or sites. Any Google success should would put it closer to potential partners like Facebook.
  • Apple isn’t so much a provider of core social technologies as it is the best delivery vehicles for users of them. That shouldn’t change; Apple could continue to support Google search, for example. Notwithstanding its mobile ad network, Apple hasn’t demonstrated any seriousness around behavioral ad targeting.
  • Foursquare. Like many other social application pure-plays, Foursquare appears nimble enough to build on third-party services and APIs. Its game-like usage remains and it is developing advertiser relationships rapidly.

Related Research: Unlocking Social Media Ad Spending.

Question of the week

How can Google win in social media and who would it affect?