Will Google ever get social media right?
That question has marketers buzzing since the search giant last week rolled out Google+, its latest venture into social media and a potential Facebook competitor.
Marketers are divided over Google's chances for social success. Some contend that social media is not in the DNA of its tech saavy, performance-driven organization, while others counter that Google has enough money and talent to succeed in social – if not this time, maybe another time.
One thing's clear: Google has finally got people talking, rather than yawning, about its social strategy. Ford's Scott Monty helped to fuel that discussion when his team created two accounts on Google+ – Ford Motor Company and Ford Europe – to test the platform. Ford's plans included offering video and group chats with some of its followers on Google+.
However, brand marketers will have to wait out on the sidelines in the coming months. ClickZ Managing Editor Zachary Rodgers learned yesterday that Google told brands to hold off from using the service until it releases business profiles later this year.
"Interestingly, Google has chosen to use their old-fashioned limited test rollout to friends and insiders rather than a social media invite everyone-at-once approach," said Heidi Cohen, president, Riverside Marketing Strategies and ClickZ Experts contributor, in an email interview with me. Indeed, that strategy worked when Google introduced Gmail in 2004.
What exactly is Google+? It's an assortment of features with titles such as +Circles, +Sparks, +Hangouts, and +Mobile.
Consider +Circles: it is designed to give an individual more flexibility than Facebook to identify who they want to associate with in a particular group. Problem is, as Search Engine Watch Director Jonathan Allen points out, it can be tough to categorize relationships. "Personally speaking, it has already been a challenge to decide whether I differentiate professional friends from personal friends, or work on the basis that they are all ultimately friends," he wrote last week.
Google doesn't have recent history on its side either. Google Wave, promoted as a tool for use in "conversation and collaboration," was more like a ripple. And Google Buzz came under criticism for violating the privacy of Gmail users; it initially created a network of Buzz friends from a person's Gmail account. And once someone activated Buzz, those names were made public. (Google allocated $8.5 million to fund privacy education as part of a settlement to a class-action lawsuit brought by some Gmail users.)
Google+: The Promise for Marketers
The marriage of search and social holds great promise for many reasons. And Google's in a position to make that happen, says Bryan Eisenberg, managing partner at Eisenberg Holdings and ClickZ Experts contributor.
Consider this example: let's say Eisenberg wants to take his 6-year-old child to the movie, "Cars 2," and searches for movie reviews on Google. And if that search shows reviews from his preferred social circles, those reviews would be more relevant than one written by someone with different likes and interests. In addition, he said, people typically see only a small percentage of their friends' tweets and status updates on Twitter and Facebook.
Google also has had a relationship with Bazaarvoice to integrate customer reviews into search results, according to Eisenberg. So Google+ should be able to build upon those connections.
What about potential barriers to consumer adoption? Eisenberg doesn't believe that's an issue either. "Every single [Android] phone that's activated – there's one-half million a month now – comes with a Gmail address that's automatically set up by Google Buzz," he said.
Eisenberg says Google will triumph over Facebook because Google's efforts are built around an open network compared to Facebook, which is a closed network.
And if Google doesn't get it right this time, it has the resources to refine its approach. As of March 31, Google had $36.7 billion in cash on hand, according to its earnings report.
Google+: Out of Its Comfort Zone?
Not everyone is convinced that Google can and should compete with Facebook.
"In order to have a social network, you need a network - not just the technology to power it. Google has long had the largest user base online, but never the largest subscriber base, which means they have very little knowledge of who (or where) their end users are. And Google end users are very uptight about privacy, so trust is an issue for them," observed Mike Grehan, VP and global content director at Search Engine Watch, ClickZ, and the SES conference series.
Because Google has been an innovator in search, he finds it odd that it's giving so much attention to a non-core area of business. "Developing what is virtually a Facebook clone is certainly a departure, if not a lack of direction - certainly a lack of innovation. I doubt that Facebook has plans to launch a web crawler any time soon," he said.
Instead, Google may be in a better position to compete with LinkedIn and its business users. "With [Google's] presence in the online apps space/SaaS and the cloud (Google Docs, etc.) it may have been a better idea to develop a community around that," he said.
"Given that companies such as Facebook and Twitter have yet to show signs of substantial revenue generation, whereas Google is loaded, it does beg the question why they're doing this – just to keep up with Mark Zuckerberg? Just because they can?" Grehan asked.
What Does Google+ Mean for Marketers?
Google is discouraging businesses from setting up Google+ accounts right now, so there's not a lot that brand marketers can do today. However, marketers (you are human, after all) can try to get an account to better learn how the service works.
Riverside Marketing's Cohen said that while it's too early to forecast how Google+ will evolve, she identified three important marketing considerations to keep in mind. She advises:
Augustine Fou, group chief digital officer of Omnicom's Healthcare Consultancy Group, shared these thoughts about Google+, in an email interview on July 11.
What is Google+'s potential impact for marketers? The same as any other social network - if people like your product and it is worth talking about, this is just another place for them to tell their friends (it is not a place where companies should push more messages out at people).
Before you’d recommend any advertisers to use it, what are key questions you have? I wouldn't recommend it to advertisers. It is a place where people will connect with others (peers) and when it gets to critical mass advertisers may have an opportunity to mine some insights and information about users, not before. Also, knowing Google, advertisers will probably be able to simply buy ads on it via adwords soon anyway.
How do you think it compares/contrasts to Google's past so-called social initiatives? This may be the first complete initiative. Prior projects like Buzz and Wave were more like features. I have to spend more time with it to truly see its potential. It is useful already because all my contacts are already in Google/Gmail and it is easy to get them involved in G+. It is just another layer of ways I can interact with them individually or as groups. I think it would be unwise for companies to set up G+ pages (like Facebook pages) and then try to drive people there. If they use G+ as yet another destination to drive people for the purpose of pushing messages at them, then they will miss the opportunity to truly take advantage of it. But again the principle is "people don't friend lipitor" on Facebook. So there has to be better reasons for them to interact with a brand on G+ too.
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Anna Maria Virzi, ClickZ's executive editor from 2007 until 2012, covered Internet business and technology since 1996. She was on the launch team for Ziff Davis Media's Baseline and also worked at Forbes.com, Web Week, Internet World, and the Connecticut Post.
December 12, 2013
1:00pm ET / 10:00am PT