By now, you’ve probably heard about Google’s limited release of its new social networking platform, Google+ — but did you know this could be the most significant product launch in the brief history of social media?
That may sound like an outrageous statement, but it’s true. And it’s valid regardless of whether Google+ proves to be raging success or a total flop. That’s because Google+ is the best — and possibly last — chance for Google to provide some real competition for Facebook in the social networking arena.
If the marketplace rates Google+ a big fat zero, it won’t be the end of Google, the company. It will, however, raise questions about how long Google can retain its status as the world’s most visited Web portal.
Good News and Bad News
In May of this year, more than 1 billion people visited the assorted sites on the Google platform, the first time any company has reached that milestone, according to comScore.
Facebook placed third in the rankings, with 713.6 million visitors during the month of May. Microsoft ranked second, as 905 million people showed up at its various sites.
The bad news for Google — and the reason Google+ is so important — is this: Users spend more time on Facebook than they do on other sites. In May, users spent a total of 50 billion more minutes on Facebook than on either Google or Microsoft sites, comScore reported.
That stickiness is a major concern for Google, because it’s a key metric for snagging and retaining advertisers.
Launching Pad vs. Visitor’s Lounge
Google’s original product — its famous search engine — was designed to bring users to Google’s front door and then send them elsewhere for information, making its site resemble a launching pad for Web surfers.
Facebook, meanwhile, is more akin to a visitor’s lounge, a place where people are inclined to take a few minutes to chat with friends, play a few games, and make plans to meet again before moving on.
Google clearly recognizes the value of keeping users connected to its platform. Its suite of cloud services — Gmail, Google docs — etc. — are designed to do just that. The problem with those products, as they relate to Google’s efforts at competing with Facebook, is they are still information-centric. They don’t connect with users on an emotional level, and thus don’t entice users to stick around and interact with them any longer than it takes to complete a specific task. Once email is checked and documents are saved or sent, the platform has served its purpose; it’s time to check out.
Introducing Friend Management
Google+ could change that. While I wasn’t one of the chosen few invited to test the platform before its general release, I have scoured cyberspace trying to pick up as much information about it as possible. Based on my research, I’ve concluded that this is the best social networking offering Google has presented to date. More importantly, from a competitive standpoint, it addresses many areas in which Facebook is weak.
Facebook’s major weakness is what at times appears to be an unwillingness to help users protect their privacy. The platform started as a way for college students to build networks of friends. At the time, no one imaged that these networks would spread into the real world and start to include parents, aunts and uncles, friends from the past, and potential future bosses.
We’ve heard the stories of how this intermingling of social networks has led to everything from awkward moments to serious legal entanglements. Google+ promises to make those issues go away with a feature it calls “Circles.”
This feature enables what’s coming to be known as “friend management,” which simply means it allows you to create separate networks, or circles, for the people you interact with on various levels. For instance, you can create a circle just for family, which can include aunts and uncles, while having a separate, private circle for your drinking and poker-playing buddies. And, as Google notes, you can even put your boss in a circle all by himself.
Circles, Huddles and Hangouts
Circles are the perfect companion to a feature that Google has dubbed “Huddle.” It’s a group messaging service that sends notes only to those people who are part of a circle. So, you can use this feature to arrange a night out with your friends without worrying about your crazy uncle — or even worse your crazy boss — asking to tag along.
These are the highlights of Google+. Other features include “Hangout,” which allows people to enter a video chat room for conversations with people in any of their circles.
Suffice it to say that Google+ is designed to make the Google platform more than a mere information hub. Its purpose is to close that gap in the amount of time people spend on Google’s sites versus Facebook. From my initial analysis of the product, it has a chance to do that. If it can’t, I don’t know how Google — or anyone else — will be able to challenge Facebook.