Weekly Update

Google v. Facebook: Defining groups for social networks

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At last week’s product announcement, CEO Mark Zuckerberg contrasted Facebook’s approach to creating “groups” with that of Google, saying, “The definition of groups is . . . everyone inside the group knows who else is in the group.” Pretty clearly, he was responding to the Circles feature in Google+ that’s been attracting rave reviews from early adopters. Groups are critical for unified communications, content sharing and filtering, application interaction and distribution and identity management. In time, they may become important for advertising and marketing.

Facebook and Google handle group management quite differently. Understanding their strategies will help competitors and partners gauge one another’s chances for success and identify opportunities for complementary products and services.

Differing approaches

Facebook refined Groups last October; its previous Lists approach suffered from a low 5 percent adoption. Facebook wanted Groups to facilitate focused sharing and communications, while Lists would remain as a news-feed filter for power users. Facebook made Groups a two-way membership dependent on invitations. Besides assuring common membership, that tactic was geared to jump-start adoption by harnessing behavior similar to photo tagging, where a minority of participants does all the work.

Google’s Circles is easier to use and better integrated than Facebook’s options, and it functions as both filters and focused sharing/messaging. Since Google is starting from scratch, it has the advantage of practically forcing users into setting up Circles upon sign-in. But Circles is not reciprocal: While a user can follow contacts à la Twitter without requiring a two-way relationship, there’s no easy mechanism for creating single groups with common membership.

Outlook for success, opportunities

In a survey of 451 GigaOM users, many respondents explicitly called out Circles as having a competitive advantage over Facebook, praising its real-world affinity and its granular control over content and privacy. Early adopters see high rates of sharing. Meanwhile, since October, over 50 percent of Facebook users have become members of Groups, according to the company, lending some validity to the “power-inviter” concept. But there’s no telling how representative those Groups are of real-life connections.

In the end, organizing the masses on social networks into relevant groups will probably take big-data analysis that produces auto-suggestions that users can apply. That kind of approach may be coming soon. Similar types of sorting for relevance are well under way, with Google an early innovator.

Google makes its living analyzing relevance and has proven its capabilities with search results. It’s starting to demonstrate expertise in social relevance via its Gmail priority inbox, though its social search efforts may be stymied by the expiration of its Twitter data licensing. And Facebook applies its own EdgeRank algorithm to sort users’ news feeds by relevance. Users’ results may vary. I’d bet on Google getting group relevance right, but then again, Facebook has a lot of social graph data and plenty of money to hire scientists.

I’m surprised Google+ doesn’t pre-populate Circles already, although perhaps Google fears that that would creep people out. It could test reactions by offering the feature to existing priority inbox users. Likewise, Facebook automatically suggests adding members to Lists, but, oddly, not to Groups.

What kind of opportunities does that leave for third parties? Consider the following:

As noted, Google has advantages in defining groups, due to its existing expertise and the fact that it doesn’t have to retrofit a solution. But there’s already a hack to “Circle-ize” Facebook Groups. If either approach gains momentum, the other will no doubt copy it. Let the games begin.

Question of the week

Who will win in social network groups?