Blog Post

Google+: A targeted response to Facebook’s shotgun approach

DartsThis 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.

Rooly Eliezerov co-founded Gigya and leads product there. The SaaS company provides plug-ins such as Social Login that helps make websites social. Follow him on Twitter: @rooly.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Bogdan Suditu.

11 Responses to “Google+: A targeted response to Facebook’s shotgun approach”

  1. beenyweenies

    While the “Circles” feature is nice, I think there is a far more interesting point to be made about Google+ and its potential. For several years detractors have insisted that Google was spreading itself too thin experimenting with different things (and sometimes failing), and should just focus on search. Having used Google+ for a few days now, I get what Google’s up to and it’s HUGE.

    Facebook is basically a website, and not a lot more. Google, on the other hand, has a huge stable of complimentary sites, services and technologies that, when bound together and in a social context, could completely redefine social to be not so much a website that people visit, but a reinvention of how we use the web entirely.

    Google Search, Email, YouTube, Reader (RSS aggregator), Picasa (desktop photo management like iPhoto but with web galleries/sharing), Blogger, Shopping, Calendars, Maps, Docs, Google Voice, Chat, WebM (used in both web video AND their new open source video chat protocol), and they recently acquired a social gaming company as well. The list goes on and on.

    Now imagine weaving all of those services together in a social context and you have something totally different than Facebook, you have a whole new way people interact with the web entirely. Use your imagination, and it’s not hard to see that Facebook has a real problem on its hands here.

    It’s important to remember that, among tech companies, Facebook consistently ranks in the bottom 5% of consumer satisfaction surveys, only MySpace is lower. Google, on the other hand, ranks among the top, higher than WikiPedia, Yahoo and most others. People are more likely to use Google than Facebook if they are exposed to the value proposition.

    And that brings me to the reality that Google already has a far larger audience than Facebook thanks to the user base of Google Search, Android and Chrome. If Google leverages this user base to get the word out and entice users, Facebook is in for a very rough ride.

  2. Nam Dang

    @Jeff: Friend list is a pain with facebook. I find it tedious and hard to use, and sometimes overlapping. Google+ Circle is the perfect solution!

    • AnthonyP

      Really? All Google did was add drag-and-drop to Facebook lists. It’s still the same amount of work. When I add or confirm a friend, I choose a list from the drop-down right then and there. How hard is that? It’s just as easy to change later.

      Google still didn’t solve the real issue with lists, circles, groups or whatever you want to call them: They are based on connections, not relationships, and are not mutual. I may classify someone as a coworker and limit what they see, but they may classify me as a friend, and allow me to see personal things that I find uncomfortable. I have hidden people on Facebook for just that reason. Yes, fixing that will make people uncomfortable, because everyone will know where they stand with their “friends,” but it is the right thing to do to truly fix the issue. Would it be good for Google or Facebook? Probably not, but it would be good for their users.

      The other issue I have with Google is that they still don’t seem to get it. In spite of what people think, Facebook is completely opt-in: You don’t share any data you don’t enter. Google+, like Buzz, seems to assume that all data you already have in your various Google applications is data you want to share. Perhaps the worst I’ve seen so far, and there are screen shots on the web, is that if you have Picasa web albums, you must link them to Google+ or you can’t use Google+! And it gets better (or worse;) this is a direct quote from the Google+ page: “Your albums’ visibility settings aren’t changed, but people they’re shared with can now share them with others.” So Google isn’t going to change MY permissions, they’re just going to allow other people to override them.

    • I find Facebook very counter-intuitive. Instructions aren’t easily accessible, and set-up tedious and time consuming. I’m not a “techie”; so by no means am I as capable as some of the people who root their phones, are capable of hacking, etc. But I’m no idiot, either. And I learn quickly…frankly, I don’t have the patience for Facebook. You have to do too much to protect your information, if you have the time to make all of those specific changes. Facebook, due to it’s set-up, is the biggest time-waster (for me).

  3. Wait, really? Circles are friend lists in Facebook. They’ve been around a long time. I can at any time use the pull-down on “most recent” at the top of the feed to filter by list. You can set permissions on any of the different pieces (wall, photos, etc.) to only be viewable by certain lists. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I doubt I’m the only one.

    • beenyweenies

      What’s missing, however, is the ease of use, granularity in control and people’s willingness to use those features. Everyone in my FB list does in fact “shotgun blast” their random musings to their entire list, making for a messy, long winded wall of meaningless crap.