Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few days, you know that Google on Tuesday rolled out its biggest effort yet to crack the social-networking market. Google+ is an ambitious collection of social features and tools, all bundled into something the company is taking great care not to describe as a Facebook competitor. Whether Google wants to admit it or not, however, that’s exactly what Google+ is — and the biggest hurdle for the web giant is that a collection of cool features doesn’t make a network. People do.
In a nutshell, Google+ (which the company says is just the beginning of a gradual rollout of other related social elements across the network) is focused around the “stream,” which is a very Facebook-like collection of posts, comments, photos and other content from your social “circles,” as Google calls them. There’s also a separate news-based stream called Sparks, and a video-chat feature called Hangout (which Om says should have Skype worried more than Facebook), but the circles and your interaction with them is the core of the experience.
The silo problem
As Marco Arment of Instapaper notes in a blog post, this is where the big problem (or challenge) lies for Google: At the moment, the only people in its social network are those who already use a lot of Google services, and only those with a Google profile can really participate fully. As far as I can tell, there’s no easy way to pull contacts in from Twitter, and there certainly isn’t any easy way to connect to Facebook — which isn’t surprising given the history between Google and the Zuckerberg empire. As a result, your Google+ life feels a little like you’re living in a silo.
This is a point I tried to make in a previous post about Google and its social efforts: If you can’t extend your online activity to a broad selection of your actual social graph, it won’t be useful enough to keep you coming back and will ultimately fail (FriendFeed, a service I liked very much, was heading down this road until it was bought by Facebook).
If you’re a social network, you live or die based on the network effects you either create or take advantage of. It’s nice to have cool features, but features — broadly speaking — aren’t what make people keep using a social service (yes, we’re looking at you, Ping). To use a retail analogy, features and user interface can get people in the front door, but they can’t turn them into die-hard customers. What really makes them keep coming back are the people they can connect with, share with, comment to, and otherwise interact with.
Good design is nice, but not enough
That’s not to say Google+ isn’t good-looking, because it is. In fact, the user interface is extremely well done, as others have noted, and is substantially better than many other Google services, which usually go for what could charitably be called the “utilitarian” look. For Google+, the company apparently turned to former Apple designer Andy Herzfeld, and it shows. But the truth is most people don’t give a damn about good design, or at least not enough to choose a specific network based on looks (although Myspace is arguably an example of how bad design can drive users away).
Google+ also does a lot of things right when it comes to the structure of the network. One of those is the whole idea of “circles,” or specific groups that you can add people too (the defaults are Family, Friends, Acquaintances, and Following but you can also add your own). If there’s a killer feature in Google+, it’s probably this: the idea that users don’t want to necessarily share everything with all the people in their network, but want to share specific things with certain groups. Facebook has lists, but they are cumbersome to set up and use, while Google makes creating “circles” incredibly easy.
Circles are great, but who’s in them?
Ironically, this idea of having different groups in which users can share different content originally came from Paul Adams, a former Google designer who published a highly regarded Slideshare presentation about the concept last year, describing it as the missing element of most social networks (i.e., Facebook). It’s ironic because Adams is now working at Facebook (he said in comment on Twitter that seeing Google+ being used in public was “like bumping into an ex-girlfriend”).
Unfortunately for Google, adding people to circles is still kind of kludgy, because if they don’t already have a profile on Google then you can only add them as an email contact, which hardly seems that appealing. Google may have millions of users, but that doesn’t help if I don’t know that many of them — I checked when I got Google+ and I only know a handful of friends who have a profile.
The bottom line is that Facebook has the one killer feature of a social network: namely, almost all of my friends and family are using it. That’s a mountain for Google to climb, and it could mean that Google+ becomes like a grown-up version of FriendFeed: a niche network for techie types. Of course, Myspace — which used to be the world’s leading social network with a value of $580 million and was just sold for $35 million — is a great example of how even network effects can turn against you if your business model is flawed. So even Facebook probably shouldn’t get too complacent.
XKCD cartoon used by permission