Blog Post

Sure, I Could Join a Google-Based Social Network — But Why?

After much rumor and speculation about a new Google (s goog) social feature of some kind, the Internet giant finally unveiled what it calls its “+1” service today. The service — as Om explained in his post on the launch — is an attempt to add “social validation” to search, via Google’s version of the Facebook “like” button. While these kinds of social cues may help improve search, however, the move also appears to be the latest attempt to jump-start some kind of Google-oriented social network, something that seems to have substantially less likelihood of success, at least as it’s currently configured. Why? Because people don’t go to Google to be social.

As Om describes in his post, and as Search Engine Land lays out in more detail, the main feature of the +1 system is that it allows users to vote on search results or ads. Their vote is then displayed next to the result for anyone in their Google-based social network.

And what is that Google network? Good question. At this point, it’s people in your Gmail contacts, people you have agreed to connect to through Google Talk, people you subscribe to through the company’s RSS reader, and people you follow on the Buzz social network (you can see your social circle here).

At this point, Google tries to glue together all these different sources of contacts, friends and follows through your Google Profile — and it’s no coincidence that when you enable the +1 features, one of the first things the company tries to get you to do is either set up a profile, if you don’t already have one, or update your profile, if you do have one. The biggest problem, as with so much of what Google has tried to do with social features and services so far (yes, I’m looking at you, Buzz) is that Google profiles aren’t really connected to anything in any real way.

Yes, I can link my Twitter account and my Facebook page to my Google profile, but it’s just a simple HTML link that someone could click — assuming someone actually visited my Google profile page, which as far as I can tell no one ever does. The reality is that nothing I do within the network of Google services affects or is connected to anything I do elsewhere in any real way, and that includes the places where I spend a lot of time, such as blogs and Twitter and Facebook. And that’s a big part of the problem.

So yes, it’s good that Google is adding social signals to search — that’s a smart thing to do. And like Om, I am kind of wondering why they didn’t do it a lot sooner, since search is still 90 percent of what Google does (from a financial sense, at least). But that focus is part of the problem: everything the company does is still seen through the lens of search, which is why it has so much trouble understanding how social features work (see Buzz) and sees social as something that can be “bolted on” to its existing services.

Search may be interesting to Google, and useful to millions of people, but it’s useful in a purely utilitarian sort of way — not in any kind of social way. In some ways, in fact, those two purposes are completely antithetical to each other, which is why no one thinks of Google as a social destination. And I could be wrong, but I don’t think that improving search results in some kind of theoretical way is enough motivation to get people to play in Google’s version of a social network. Not yet, at least.

The company says it is considering adding links and connections to Twitter and other services in future iterations of the +1 service, and I hope it does so soon, because in its current incarnation, the Google social network is profoundly uninteresting. The company’s introductory video is embedded below.

36 Responses to “Sure, I Could Join a Google-Based Social Network — But Why?”

  1. “I think it could be useful as a way to get the best sites at the top of the search list…”

    Yes, except Google says “+1” clicks won’t affect overall search engine rankings.

    The only practical benefit I see here is to Google … this allows them to build a more accurate profile of you and your friends.

  2. I am waiting for the -1 button. Having a +1 and no other choice is sort of like saying that since there is no opinion it can’t be bad. Ask any social media loon/PR flack.

    There is no good news here.

  3. “Search may be interesting to Google, and useful to millions of people, but it’s useful in a purely utilitarian sort of way — not in any kind of social way. In some ways, in fact, those two purposes are completely antithetical to each other, which is why no one thinks of Google as a social destination.”

    Nailed it.

    Google has many of the elements of a social network, if it cares to tie them together that way. But, I just don’t see them succeeding in that area.

    I love Google’s clean, orderly, logical, minimalist approach, when I’m trying to do something intellectual.

    But, If I’m being social, I want warmth, not formality. I want to know that it’s okay to be a little disorderly. I just don’t get that from Google.

    • They’ve got Picasa, which is a great photo sharing site. I’m soon launching FreezeCrowd, which will be a social photo based network for college students and alumni. Would happy to talk to Google. There are a lot of great photo tools out there, what more are you looking for?

  4. Hi Mathew,

    I think framing the question around “Google based social network” is starting off on the wrong foot. I may not want to join another social network, but if social behavior can be seamlessly integrated into what I do anyway – then this is a big plus.
    For instance – sharing a tweet via email should be a 1-click in the default Twitter web client. This would not mean that I “joined a Twitter based or email based social network” just that I added some *natural* social behavior to my current user experience.
    So I think trying to give it a thumbs up or down based on the wrong question or rather a wrong framing of the issue does your readership a disservice.
    BTW, I am not a Google employee or apologist or supporter. I just think this is something done right and needs a proper analysis, rather than trying to fit it into a predefined yes/no question.
    Also BTW +1 is borrowed from geek speak on email lists especially Apache email lists where it is used as a voting mechanism to gather opinions on whether a feature or change or some proposal should or should not make it.

    So whatever else happens or whatever anyone says or not, +1 is likely to be easily picked up by the geeks as it is not only a seamless social behavior addition but it is one they are already used to. And as Tim O’Reilly points out what the alpha geeks do today diffuses out into the world of everyone tomorrow.
    There is no current Google social network and even if there never is Google might very well create massive value from these small additions.
    Finally if “social” is a feature that gets added to everything then it is far far harder for a competitor to fight – is Facebook or Twitter going to create a search engine, or an email system or a mobile OS. Not likely.

    This may end up being social 2.0 or “social as an aspect” rather than as a destination network. So I would suggest a second more nuanced look at +1 than you are giving right now.

    • Thanks for the comment, Nitin — I certainly see the potential for Google to do what you are describing, which is why I said that the network or feature or platform is not interesting right now. If it does the kind of thing you are describing, it could get more interesting.

  5. The problem with is feature, in my opinion obviously, is that it is done in the wrong place.
    When i get the search list, i still can not evaluate each link, before actually entering it.
    One inside, i can not do +1.
    So i have to keep the list available, and return to it every time, locate the link i was in (what if i have multiple tabs open, and i drifted away from the original search?) and do +1.
    You misd the immidiate action, the intuitivness- which you have with Like

  6. This is a good move by Google. Instead of building an FB-clone to take on FB head-to-head, they are going about this subtly. This is the more Googley way of doing things.

    Google already has a much better and bigger social graph than FB. And, they already have web properties that bring a lot of eye balls. So, they don’t need an FB-clone. They are focusing with laser-like precision on the one aspect of social media that is most missing from their vast databases: people’s conscious or deliberate likes. “Conscious or deliberate” is the key phrase here. From search words and from indexing the vast Internet (including Twitter & GMail), Google already knows about people’s interests and their conversations. The only thing Google doesn’t know is about things a person would deliberately and actively like or recommend. It would have been stupid and overkill for them to build an FB-clone to know this single piece of information. +1 is all that is needed.

    The biggest challenge for Google is getting people to actually use +1. Unless prompted or encouraged in some clever way (subtle or obvious), the majority of online users are notorious for being lurkers who won’t post a comment or click a button. The reason FB and Twitter saw such explosive growth is that they both created a peer pressure / peer encouragement situation for people to sign-up and engage with their friends on these services. I am not able to see +1 creating similar peer pressure / peer encouragement among groups of people. With that key element missing, I’m afraid +1 may not be very successful.

    • Thanks, A.S. — I disagree that Google has “a much better and bigger social graph than FB.” That’s only true if you define social graph as “everyone you have ever emailed,” which is what Google did with Buzz and later regretted. But I agree that adoption is going to be the difficult part. Thanks for the comment.

  7. I think a lot of people here are missing the point (as is the article in general). Google isn’t necessarily trying to just ‘take on’ FB. There’s no point in them attempting to replicate that experience. A looser, less centralized experience is probably the best way to go. For instance, if Google slowly, subtly integrates its +1 system into searches, and people just use it (in the ‘utilitarian’ sense that seems to have been derided) they’ll change how millions (far more than any social network) of people work.

    Just like how ‘google’ is now the verb for searching (no one says ‘I’ll yahoo it’), YouTube is ubiquitous with online video, these sort of looser, simpler experiences will just become a part of everyday life, rather than the unhealthy obsessions that are FB and Twitter. I for one welcome improved functionality, with a social aspect, much more than a new ‘destination’. As Google slowly rolls these changes into their various services, they’ll all just get incrementally better, the way they have been doing for sometime, and soon you’ll use them without noticing (or at least you will if you use Gmail etc already). In fact, the last thing I want to do these days is get locked in or sign up with a new and foreign ecosystem with a fixed structure. As someone else mentioned, ‘layers’ are what Google seems to be after, and I’m all for it.

    Also, just for the record Buzz does integrate with many other sites, such as Flickr, Picasa etc, pulling information from the sources if you so wish, so to suggest it doesn’t connect with anything else is wrong. In fact, its flexibility is great for the long run.

    PS. Note the number of ‘Comments’ vs ‘Facebook Comments’ for this article. Loose, open concept (ye olde comment box) vs overly structured ‘social’ commentary. Obviously if the proportion changes over the course of the day, I’ll be happy to eat crow ;)

  8. Spencer

    Dead on. If I can imagine Google to be objective, and search results as reliable as unbiased as a weather forecast, then great. Once Google reminds me that they are a company with an axe to grind, my faith in their objectivity evaporates.
    That’s why I will never use a Google social tool. It’s like having a social network started by the electrical company.

  9. I really don’t see the point. A few reasons:

    – If I see +1s from my social circle alone, I’ll never see one. The Internet is a big place, and even the chance of me returning to a particular page is slim (outside my few regulars), let alone the chance of me stumbling on a page a friend of mine saw.

    – I don’t have all that many friends, and our tastes are often different – no offense, but I can’t think of anyone (that I actually know) who’s approval of something would carry much weight for me. I CAN think of people who’s opinion on stuff would influence me greatly, they’re just not people I actually know. Also, seeing that 92 J. Random Users out of a 100 liked something means a lot more to me than knowing that my friend X.Y.Z. did like it.

    – As suggested above, what I WOULD like to know is NOT how many of my friends liked something (who most likely won’t ever even see it), but how many LIKE-MINDED people liked something. That’s why Amazon suggestions actually seem to work surprisingly well. That’s called correlation, not a social network.

    So how about it, Google…? You only need math to do that, and you’re good at that!

  10. I was just wondering about this, as Google already has a social network, yet it’s only gained popularity in other countries from the U.S. How about a social network Orkut that integrates Google features, wouldn’t that be better than Google doing it themselves? Google really isn’t social networking, yet provides services that are social tools. Just something to think about, as I’m soon launching a social network. My site will connect people in group photos, and we’re soon launching for the college student and alumni market. I’ve gotten requests about Google integration, such as Google Maps, Search, Picasa etc. I have a lot of ideas on how Google might benefit social networks or work with social networks, yet have not added much of the Google functionality or applications to my site, which is currently in private beta. Possibly this Plus 1 could be interesting, or even Google Buzz. I’m open to people’s thoughts on this, what would you like a social network to integrate from Google. Would love feedback on what people want from Google in social. We will be coming out with some great features.

    You can follow my efforts on Twitter:

  11. We broached the same subject over at Marketing Pilgrim yesterday. With all the different ‘efforts’ Google has floating out there for a social product they are only clouding the issue. And, by the way, they are only clouding issue for the high tech Silicon Valley set because the VAST majority of people don’t know one 1/100th of what Google does or offers and unless Google steps off its ivory tower one day to educate to great unwashed they will be talking about this kind of innovation to a much smaller crowd tan they think. For 95 plus percent of the world Google is just a search engine. Their search engine of choice for sure but still just a search engine.

  12. I think Google needs to shows all these “+1’s” in a centralized place besides Google’s search page. Right now they will probably focus on just getting people used to all this being on the search page, but they should show all the +1’s on some kind of wall if they want people to stay interested in this and actually use their “Google Profile”.

    Speaking of which, they should work on the Profiles page design some more. Oh, and the “Social Circle” page is the worst web experience I’ve ever seen! It needs a revamp like from the day it was launched. It looks like it was set-up in half an hour by a “developer” (not designer).

    One other thing I hope they’ll do is make a +1 extension that appears in Chrome and other browsers if possible just like normal Chrome extension icons appear, but you should be able to just click on it and count that page (no pop-ups, etc – just simply press on it). I hope they won’t make some kind of toolbar like it was leaked a while ago, because I hate using toolbars over web pages I’m visiting, and even Kevin Rose said toolbars ruin the web.

  13. Some more thoughts:

    I think Google is taking the “long tail” approach in taking on Facebook. If Google can get enough Profiles built with people’s email addresses as their SocialID, and link that Profile with +1s, Contacts, Photos, Commenting, etc (these other services like Flickr would have to opt-in via an OpenSocial or OpenID API) then I think the aggregate of these other services would certainly be enough to take on Facebook’s 500 million users.

    I’m not sure if that’s what they’re doing, but it would make sense rather than trying to build “another Facebook” like Orkut.

  14. I think this is really just the beginning. I’m thinking that Google Profile is really a combination of Facebook’s Wall + profile. When I see my Google Profile, I see the PicasaWeb pictures, Buzz, and my +1s (i.e. Likes).

    This is a great step for Google. They really are taking this slow, but building a solid infrastructure. I think the real power will come if Google pushed the OpenID format, and allow anyone who searches for something on Google with a valid email address (whether it’s a Yahoo Mail or Hotmail address) the option to create a Google Profile (i.e. no Gmail necessary).

    The Contacts from these other email services could be easily imported into the Google Profile, and the other Google services could be used without a Gmail email. The Google Profile becomes a person’s SocialID, combining and leveraging other services.

  15. I think the main issue with this is that I don’t care what people like simply because I’ve emailed them and they use a website. So who cares if 100 of my friends like a recipe or a movie or something? The whole pitfall of social media is it creates a lowest common denominator type experience, and +1 is the absolute epitome of that. The whole point of liking or sharing something on FB is that it IS a centralized place, I’ve never looked at a facebook like box or whatever on a third party site and gone “hey, 100 of my friends like this” because I have more than 100 friends whose opinions I don’t care about.

  16. Google’s trying to make it so you won’t have to “join” their network.
    All google accounts (formerly gmail accounts) technically have a profile you can edit ( from which you can link your Picasa account, view your Buzz feed. YouTube has sharing via Buzz, all Google Services have that unified bar now that can link to your profile, etc., and now +1 will eventually be visible to all Google searchers (logged in or not?).

    Basically, Google’s trying to make it so that if you have a Google account, you’re part of their social network. It needs a tiny bit more polish, and maybe some heavier integration with YouTube, perhaps one of their most popular services, but I like it so far.

    • Lucian Armasu

      I agree, they need to heavily integrate Youtube with this. I’m surprised they haven’t already. Youtube is their most “social” asset. For example, during the recent revolutions what did people use? Twitter, Facebook…and Youtube.

      If they can integrate all their web services well enough, they might be able to build an interesting social graph about people using their services.

  17. I think you’re quite right, Mathew, in pointing out what sorta’ feels like the futility of using +1 only to have it go nowhere.

    I do wonder though if there isn’t a useful distinction to be made between Facebook as a destination and +1 as a layer. A destination is a centralized place that collects all your social activity, something that Facebook is becoming increasingly good at, especially with the like button. But a ‘layer’ atop one’s online activities seems kinda’ like RSS for social – it produces a feed of your social activity that isn’t restricted to a destination, but can be put anywhere. And I wonder if, when one shares interests with a dedicated group of people, it might not be useful to have some searches vetted. Recently, I was thinking about ‘great movies about the internet’ – what if when I searched for that, +1 was eventually smart enough to narrow the results to things my social graph had recommended?

    I’m not disagreeing with you. I think you’re spot-on, as usual. I just wonder if there isn’t an interesting nugget of an idea in how +1 functions differently than the like button precisely because it isn’t aggregated anywhere, but instead acts as a portable filter or lens over and atop the web.

    • Thanks for the comment, Nav — I agree that having a filter or a layer is an interesting concept. And I see how this filter that Google is building benefits Google, in the form of better search. But apart from the kind of query you describe, for movies or books or something of that nature, I don’t really see how it adds much for me at this point. Maybe if Google starts pulling in more aspects of my online social graph that will change, I don’t know.