By now it’s become fairly obvious that Google’s new social network, Google+, is here to stay (unlike some of the company’s past efforts at being social): depending on which estimates you believe, Google+ may have as many as 50 million registered users, which is not bad for a three-month old product. And the company has made it clear that it wants to use Google+ as a kind of identity platform for other things — hence the importance of its controversial “real name” policy. But it wasn’t obvious just how much was riding on the new network until recently, thanks in part to some comments made by vice-president of product Brad Horowitz, who said that in the future, Google+ and Google will effectively become inseparable.
Horowitz made his comments in an interview with Wired magazine, and among other things he said that the success the search giant has seen with Google+ wouldn’t have been possible without the failures of earlier efforts such as Buzz (which may or may not make staffers who worked on those projects feel a little better about being roadkill on the innovation highway). In fact, the Wired piece paints a picture of a team that has become incredibly gun-shy about its social efforts because of the debacle that Buzz turned into — thanks in part to what some users felt was a cavalier approach to privacy — which probably makes the success of Google+ seem even sweeter by comparison.
Google+ “is Google itself”
But the real meat of the interview appears in a statement that the Google staffer makes about where the Google+ network stands in relationship to the rest of the search engine’s vast empire. In effect, Horowitz says that Google+ is going to become part of everything Google touches — from search and advertising to YouTube and Chrome:
Google+ is Google itself. We’re extending it across all that we do — search, ads, Chrome, Android, Maps, YouTube — so that each of those services contributes to our understanding of who you are
This comes on the heels of comments that Google chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt made earlier this year about how Google+ was intended to be an “identity service” for other projects and services that the company either had in place or was planning to launch. It wasn’t clear exactly what Schmidt meant by those remarks at the time, but putting them together with Horowitz’s comments, it sounds like Google wants to make Google+ the central repository of everything it knows about you.
Just as Facebook is trying to accumulate data about your activity through an awareness of what you are sharing via its “social apps” and its “frictionless sharing” approach, so Google wants to aggregate as much as it can about you and your interests via all the services it offers — and how you interact with those services and others through Google+. Some of it might come from connecting YouTube with Google+ Hangouts, so you can watch a TV show with others; some might come from connecting your Gmail to Google+, so that profiles of people you follow and your shared interests appear next to emails from them.
As we’ve argued before at GigaOM, all of this social-activity data and these “social signals” are crucial information that Google needs not only to make its search better — since socially-influenced search is becoming a larger and larger part of how people find things online — but to make its advertising more targeted as well. Google’s giant market share in online advertising has been built on the back of its understanding of “intent” when it comes to search, and without access to the Twitter firehose and Facebook’s walled garden, Google has to effectively create its own sandbox for social activity.
Page is said to be “obsessed with Google+”
As John Battelle of Federated Media notes, the urgency of this goal was communicated by CEO Larry Page when he changed the compensation scheme at the search behemoth — in one of his first moves as the new chief executive — to create incentives for staffers to try harder at making Google’s social efforts a success. Battelle says in talks with Googlers over the past while, it has become obvious that Larry Page “is obsessed with Google+,” and that for the Google co-founder, the new social network has become the core of what he wants the company to become: namely, Google as “the operating system of your life.”
One problem with that, of course, is that competitors and even government regulators at the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department (not to mention in Europe) are already howling about how many of its digital tentacles Google has extended into your life already — from Google and Doubleclick to YouTube and ITA’s travel services and Zagat and too many others to mention. Once Google starts connecting those dots with Google+ as a thread, and ties all of that to your personal activity, it could have something even more powerful with which to cement its market position.
And that brings up another tricky aspect for Google: if my activity through Google+ starts to influence everything that Google does, including search and search-related advertising, how will it keep from stepping over the kinds of privacy boundaries that have caused Facebook so much difficulty? The number of Google Circles that I appear in has already started showing up in search results, and the things that I give a +1 to are affecting my search as well. Tying all that to my real name and my Google+ posts is another step down the road towards a potential personal privacy debacle.
That’s the problem with the kind of ubiquity that Google wants for its Google+ network, and the downside of trying to copy (and improve on) a giant social network like Facebook: along with all of the benefits comes the risks and the inevitable backlash as well — and for a company that is already under investigation by the FTC for how far its reach extends, that may be a bit more than even Google can handle.