Dear Google: 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

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