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Social Search and Social ROI, Part 3: How Will Google+ Change Social Search?

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Will Google+ emerge to take market share away from Facebook? The likely answer is yes. It has three sizeable advantages over Facebook: It allows users to own the IP they create and share, it enables users to promote their public work through search while keeping their private work private, and its integration into Google Docs and Gmail make it better suited to collaboration than Facebook. James Matthewson, author of Audience, Relevance, and Search: Targeting Web Audiences with Relevant Content, argues that if Google+ seriously challenges Facebook dominance, it will change the fabric of digital publishing.
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I have chronicled Google’s move towards social integration into it’s search algorithm over the past two articles (“Social Search and Social ROI, Part 1: SEO and Social Media Strategies Converge") and “Social Search and Social ROI, Part 2: Cracking the Link Equity Code in Terms of Social Influence”), including the Social Graph API, the +1 button, and the acquisition of PostRank. I also predicted that Google would likely need to partner with another social network to capitalize on these moves. What I didn’t know when I wrote those articles is that the moves were calculated to capitalize on Google+, Google’s own social networking application.

Rather than partnering, Google decided to create a new space that competes with the established players—Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Though techies joined the new network in droves, the jury is still out as to whether it will become a regular part of our everyday lives or go the way of Google Buzz—Google’s failed attempt to establish its own social network.

What’s at stake is the very fabric of digital. As I have been proving in this space for a year, search is the central activity of digital media. As I have shown more recently, search is evolving to become ever more social. It stands to reason that whoever rules social networking will change the way users search and find digital content.

As social data (links, likes, shares, +1s, etc.) play an ever greater role in search algorithms, Google+ holds the key. If Google can establish itself as both the holder of the gate (the algorithm) and the keys (the social cues that influence search ranking), it will effectively control digital publishing.

As it stands, Google must bless your content if you have any hope of getting the kind of traffic and engagement you need to justify continued content investments. But you hold the keys with the social tactics you use to build link equity. If Google also controls the applications you use to demonstrate credibility and, ultimately, link equity, you will be forced to use its applications.

Google has an uphill climb, however. Facebook and LinkedIn are firmly entrenched. Twitter has a relatively small but extremely loyal user base. Even though some 20,000 people signed up for Google+ in the first week, building on that initial momentum will require Google to demonstrate the unique value Google+ offers. That value is in its unique ability to serve both public and private personas at once, and in its integration with other collaborative tools such as Google Docs and Gmail.

The Social Wars

As Erin Kissane said at Confab in Minneapolis in May 9-11, 2011, the social wars feel a lot like the browser wars of the late ‘90s. At that time, publishing content meant producing and maintaining multiple versions of your site for Internet Explorer (IE), Mosaic, and other browsers because not all browsers complied with standards. It wasn’t until Mozilla created the open-source Firefox and distributed it for free that the rest of the browser industry rallied around standards. To compete with Firefox, IE needed to comply with standards. Eventually sites could develop one version that complied with the standards and all browsers displayed them the same.

The main similarity between the browser wars and the social wars revolve around open standards. In the late ‘90s, Microsoft pushed IE to work best with its own set of standards, outside of the W3C-sanctioned ones. At one time, IE had a near monopoly on the market. Developers had to build sites outside of the standards or risk serving crippled experiences to their users. Microsoft even sold a development platform called Microsoft Publisher. Sites built in Publisher could not be viewed from any browser besides IE.

From a standards perspective, the analog to Microsoft of the late ‘90s is Facebook. Facebook has its own set of standards, ironically named OpenGraph, that enable digital publishers to integrate Facebook functionality on their sites. But the standard is not controlled by an independent body such as the W3C. It is controlled by Facebook (with broad industry representation). One of the fears about Facebook (rational or not) is that OpenGraph will become a de facto requirement for sites. That would make digital publishers beholden to the whims of Facebook.

From a dominance perspective, Google is the analogue to Microsoft of the late ‘90s, complete with antitrust legal wrangling. The fear with Google (rational or not) is the one I expressed above: They already own the gate; if they own the keys, digital publishers will be beholden to the whims of Google. Quelling those fears is that Google is all about open standards and transparency. Their values stem from one simple statement: “Do no evil.” Is it possible to have a benevolent content monopoly that only wants what’s best for digital publishers and their users?

Put in these terms, the open battle between Facebook and Google makes more sense. Microsoft plays a part with Bing and its Facebook integration. Twitter and LinkedIn have minor roles. But the battle for social search integration is between Facebook’s proprietary OpenGraph standard and Google’s open SocialGraph standard. They are not compatible. And neither will their primary digital expressions: Facebook and Google+.

Sizing Up Google+

If Google wants to own the key, Google+ can’t just be a social network alongside the others. It must take share away from Facebook. After Google + launched, several of the people I followed tweeted something like the following: “Do I really need a fourth social network?” They were asking a rhetorical question.

Most digitally savvy folks use LinkedIn, which was the first business-focused social network with clout. Most use Facebook, if only as a way to manage relationships with friends and family outside of professional circles. Many use Twitter, especially those with smart phones, though it has not enjoyed penetration into the more casual user. Another site to check and post to, even with tools like HootSuite, is just more time and attention than most users are willing to invest. Information overload has its limits. My sense is three social sites is the limit.

Google+ might take some share from LinkedIn and Twitter, but it needs to become the replacement for Facebook if Google wants to get the keys to the content gate. Given Facebook’s huge installed base, it will take more than a few nice features to get people way from the familiar and adopt something new. Let’s focus on how it might take enough market share from Facebook to do this.

Privacy

One of the knocks on Facebook is that its privacy policy is draconian. Here are two respective privacy statements.

As I wrote about in the article titled “Is Facebook Open and Free Enough?”, users really don’t have anything to worry about with Facebook privacy. You can set privacy much stronger in Facebook than you can in Google+. There’s a lot of stuff we want to share with those close to us that we don’t want any old search user to find. If we don’t feel secure with it, we won’t share it at all. Though Facebook has stumbled in coming up with a good privacy system, the one it has now allows you to control this pretty well.

Google+ does give you the ability to publish to specific people or circles in a more granular way than you can with Facebook. But my sense is, only the power users will figure this out. And it’s not enough to counteract the ability to rigidly control access to private information that you have in Facebook.

IP Ownership

When users complain about Facebook privacy, perhaps they really mean IP ownership. The main difference between the policies published above is that Facebook retains IP ownership over all the stuff I share on the site (pictures, text, etc.) until I shut my page down. Google+ expressly disavows ownership. This is a big deal because most people don’t like anyone using their name, likeness or any other aspect of their personal brand without their expressed, written consent. I probably have nothing to worry about with Facebook using my photos for promotional reasons. But by using Facebook, I grant it that right. That bugs me. Google+ has a competitive advantage in this respect.

Search Integration

Because Facebook is rigorously privacy-controlled, it is a walled garden. Much of it is not crawlable by Google or any other search engine. Google+ will have the distinct advantage of publishers better integrating their search and social activities. When I post to Google+, I know it will be given the credence I want it to have on Google. I could open up my Facebook account to everyone, but then I would need to delete most of it for the sake of my privacy.

This third clause is pivotal. It seems to me that all publishers need to be able to have public and private personas. We must promote our pages without public personas, where they can be picked up by search engines and passed around. And we are inclined to only share personal information with our private personas. For Facebook, this is an all or nothing thing. All my posts are for friends, friends of friends, etc. I can’t say this particular post is for everyone and this post is only for friends. Google+ gives users that ability with its circles function. This might make it the perfect replacement for Facebook.

Collaboration

Facebook has its own chat and e-mail-like function. But it has nowhere near the collaborative features that Google+ has by virtue of its integration with the suite of tools available to Gmail users.

Internally at IBM, we use Lotus Connections. This is a powerful toolset that we use all day, everyday. It includes lots of file-sharing functions, activities, profiles, and wikis. My profile page is similar to my Google+ page. I can connect with anyone in the company and invite them to share resources with me in a community, either secure or insecure. I can use these resources as the basis of ongoing cross-functional conference calls. The spaces I create automatically document the work we produce.

With the addition of Google+, Google can do for the public web what Lotus does for intranets, with the exception of conferencing. This gives Google+ an advantage Facebook can’t match, helping distributed teams do more than just share and like. It should help them collaborate. Hence, the addition of hang-outs, spaces that seem designed for this purpose.

Conclusion

Facebook has a big head start and installed user base. But so did MySpace. Facebook consistently took market share from MySpace by building better experiences for its users. Whether Google+ eventually overtakes Facebook will depend on the same criterion: better software. It has a long road ahead of it, but this is a very good start to fill gaps in Facebook’s experiences, especially on IP ownership, search integration, and collaboration. As it takes share from Facebook, it will become increasingly important for search marketers to use it for link building.

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