Google+ and the Long Game
Sure, Google+ doesn't have anything close to the numbers Facebook boasts. But there's still plenty of value Google can wring from its social network and plenty of places in which it can grow, according to Google VP Vic Gundotra. Google+, he said, is a social layer that goes on top of everything else Google does, rather than an isolated destination.
Google+ chief Vic Gundotra sat down with Guy Kawasaki, cofounder of Alltop.com and founding partner at Garage Technology Ventures, at this year's SXSW convention. The topic at hand: how Google+ plans to remain afloat in the hotly competitive online social network space.
When Google+ launched over the summer, it quickly picked up millions of followers, but it still struggles to compete against social networking giants such as Facebook and Twitter. Recent data from comScore indicated the average Google+ user spends less than five minutes per month on the site, prompting critics to dub the network a "ghost town."
As Google's senior VP of social business, Gundotra acknowledged the "ghost town" references during his chat with Kawasaki, but he focused on the advantages he believes the network has over competitors and talked about improvements it will have going forward.
Before Google+, Google was the leader in "organizing the world's pages and information," he said, but it didn't really understand people. The service could be more powerful, he explained, if the company knew even "the tiniest bit about you," giving the example of prioritizing vegetarian restaurants in a search by a vegetarian.
The potentially dark side of search also entered the interview, as Kawasaki asked about crossing privacy lines. Breaking customer trust is a major concern for Google, according to Gundotra, which is why Google+ Circles were created. Unlike competitors, he said, certain information can be posted to certain groups of people, and fewer privacy lines are crossed.
A good portion of the chat focused on advertising on Google+. Without mentioning Facebook by name, Gundotra pointed out that unlike competitors, Google+ doesn't see the need to put ads in photo albums.
Clogging photo albums with ads wasn't necessary on Google+'s end, he said because advertisers found that if an ad has a social signal, such as someone in a user's circle giving it a "+1," there is a higher click-through rate on that ad.
Gundotra also mentioned several other areas in which the team is working to improve the social network, such as opening up the API to developers. Google+ is also working to prevent spam, he added. When Kawasaki gave him personal examples of being spammed on the network, Gundotra said Google+ has the same team that made Gmail spam-free.
Despite some of the challenges the network has seen during its first months, Gundotra said the site was the fastest growing service ever at Google, citing 100 million users that were active in the past 30 days.
Google didn't respond to our request for comment.
While pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of Google+, Gundotra stressed the importance of the integration of all of Google's services with the social aspect of Google+. Google+ is a "social layer," he said, and that's why the network has an advantage over competitors.
"Google+ can be a successful service for Google without the Google+ site itself becoming an obviously successful site like Facebook, where hundreds of millions of people spend huge amounts of time on a daily basis," David Card, vice president of research at GigaOM Pro, told TechNewsWorld. "Google+ technologies could indeed make other Google products like search, YouTube, Gmail, Google Docs more social. That's a valid strategy, especially with +1s and search."
As social networks become more a part of user's lives and privacy concerns grow, that kind of product speaks better to the crowd of users that understand how social media can be used as networking tools, according to Ty Downing, CEO of SayItSocial.
"Google finally built a platform around people's behavior, and demographics versus technology first," he told TechNewsWorld. "They have also had time to study Facebook's triumphs and failures, such as with security and privacy issues."
But those kind of users aren't going to grow the kind of base that Facebook does, said Downing.
"Google+ is a legitimate social media tool; however, it does appear to skew towards a more 'techie' generation, and male," said Downing. "You won't see teens, tweens, soccer moms and grandparents on Google+, these will never leave Facebook."
The comparisons could be problematic for Google when it's looking to attract advertisers or attention to the site, since even if it's working for a small crowd of people, the numbers don't add up to the social media giants.
"Google is still trying to make Google+ into a head-to-head competitor with Facebook and Twitter, via efforts like Hangouts, Circles and photo sharing. So its relative success -- or lack -- in that context can be measured similarly," said Card.
Not Giving Up
"Google sounds like it is committed to Google+, and the company needs ways to tap into social media for its search and ad network business," Card said. "I don't see Google abandoning the site approach unless it can do data licensing deals with Facebook and Twitter. It had a Twitter deal that lapsed and hasn't been able to work with Facebook."
Some of that effort could pay off when and if Google+ opens its API to developers, according Roy Morejon, president of Command Partners. With developer interest in the site and more ways for users to integrate Google services into other areas of their Web experience, the number of engaged, daily users could be closer to approaching those of Facebook or Twitter, he said.
"It's not like Google to sit around and wait for Facebook to develop the next best social engagement add-on, so I would look to see more features especially for developers who want to use Google+ for the soon-coming API," he told TechNewsWorld.