There’s no question that Google+ has quickly become the most successful social offering that Google has ever released, racking up more than 25 million users in a matter of weeks. That may still be light years behind Facebook’s user base of more than 750 million, but the search company’s social platform seems to be getting Facebook’s attention, particularly with the recent launch of Google+ social games, such as Angry Birds. While a Facebook executive recently dismissed the Google network as inconsequential, it seems clear that the competition is keeping Facebook awake at night — which may be a good thing.
It was fairly easy for Facebook to dismiss Google’s earlier social efforts such as Buzz and Wave, in much the same way it was easy for users to dismiss them. Neither one managed to gain much traction outside a small group of Google fans and early adopters, in part because Buzz suffered from some serious privacy concerns early on (after it automatically added people from a user’s email address book without making it clear that this would happen) and Wave was just too complicated and the purpose of the service was unclear. Although Buzz continues to exist — for now — Wave has been shut down.
Google+ is everything Google’s other social efforts weren’t
Google+, by contrast, has been hailed by many users as everything Google’s previous social efforts weren’t: attractively designed, easy to use, and with some appealing features such as the use of Circles to separate a user’s social graph into different groups. The company’s approach to the use of pseudonyms has gotten criticism from users — including us — but apart from that it has been well received. And according to comScore, Google+ got to 25 million users more than 10 times faster than any other service in the history of social networking (although some are already complaining it is a ghost town).
Last week, Google upped the ante by adding social games including the popular Angry Birds and Bejeweled to the platform. And that entry into social games definitely got Facebook’s attention, since games are one of the big drivers of revenue and engagement on the larger social network, thanks to a partnership with social-gaming leader Zynga.
Not only did Facebook quickly tweak its game-related features to make them more appealing to developers such as Zynga, but a Facebook executive seemed downright snippy when asked about this new competitor at a recent game-industry event, according to a report in Fortune magazine. In talking about Google’s offer to developers — the search company is offering to take only 5 percent of the proceeds from games, in contrast to Facebook’s 30 percent — director of game partnerships Sean Ryan said:
Google is at 5 percent because they don’t have any users.
Like McDonald’s and Starbucks
Ryan went on to describe Google’s effort as being similar to McDonald’s getting into coffee in an attempt to compete with Starbucks (although that might not be the best comparison from Facebook’s point of view, since a number of analysts believe McDonald’s entry into the coffee business put substantial competitive pressure on Starbucks). And the Facebook executive described Google’s launch as a copycat move, saying the company had managed to “emulate aspects of our system, which… they have the right to do.”
Games aren’t the only element of Google+ that seems to be getting on Facebook’s nerves. There have also been reports — which have been circulated on Google’s network by the company’s head of social, Vic Gundotra — that invitation links to Google+ posted on users’ Facebook pages are not showing up. Given the history of tension between the two companies over issues such as the exporting of contact information, there has been speculation that Facebook might be blocking these links, but the social network says that it isn’t aware of any such blocking.
Can Google+ become a full-fledged competitor for Facebook? The web giant has said that the launch of social games is “just the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to what the company plans to add to its social platform, and some see mobile photo-sharing as a big element of Google’s plans for the future — in part because of the recent launch of a mobile photo application called Photovine. This would take Google+ straight into another core product area for Facebook, which has become the world’s largest photo-hosting service.
This isn’t just about competing with Facebook
As I described in a recent GigaOM Pro report (subscription required), Google is making this push into social networking not just because it wants to compete with Facebook, but because it needs to tap into the “social signals” and activity that users are engaging in on such networks as part of its core search and advertising business. And Google’s new CEO and co-founder Larry Page has made it clear that these efforts are a central part of what the company wants to do by restructuring Google’s incentive system to compensate employees who contribute to its social plans.
Facebook may have had the social-networking business more or less to itself for the past few years, thanks in part to the rapid decline of MySpace, but Google has made it obvious that it wants to become a major player — and while it is still early, the launch of Google+ shows that the search giant may just have what it takes to put some competitive pressure on the larger network. In the long run, that is likely to be good for Facebook users, and for developers of third-party applications as well.