Well, at least one of the predictions I made last December for 2011 has come true: Google this weekannounced a rollout of their new Google+ (pronounced “Google Plus”) social networking platform. Expect to hear a lot more about it over the next few months (although you are probably already tired of hearing about it, judging from the massive PR it’s gotten over the last few days).
So far (because I haven’t been invited to actually use it yet), it looks like Google+ is basically Facebook for people who don’t like Facebook (with a tip of the hat to XKCD). What are its chances of succeeding as a true competitor (or successor) to Facebook? Unlike Google’s previous attempts to enter the social networking space, I’d give this effort a better than even shot at dethroning Facebook as the top social networking site in a couple of years. Here’s why.
Google+’s first advantage over Facebook is going to be ubiquity: you’ll see it integrated into every Google product you use, from search, to Gmail, to Google Maps, to Google Documents, and Google Apps. Google+ will be less a destination on the web than a service that is available from a lot of the important Google sites that you already use. Point to Google+.
The second advantage I see to Google+ is it’s ability to better manage your acquaintances (note I didn’t say friends) into different Circles (one of the things I don’t particularly like about Google+ is its new terminology…do we really need circles, sparks, and huddles in our vocabulary?). Yes, the ability to organize your friends into different groups is indeed present in Facebook, so you can keep recreational posts from being visible to your work friends and vice versa, but not very many people ever use it. Consequently, a majority of Facebook users that mix friends in social circles with friends from professional circles don’t post a lot of information that would be considered inappropriate to either group (well, smart Facebook users, anyway). With the new Google+ circles, posts to your Work group and posts to your Friends group don’t mix, so you are free to post work conversations that would bore your Friends, and post news and pictures of friendly social events that would be irrelevant or inappropriate for work. Of course, if this feature becomes popular, there’s no reason that Facebook wouldn’t implement something similarly easy to use, but the initial point has to go to Google+. I can see this feature not only stealing traffic from Facebook, but also from primarily work-related sites like LinkedIn and Plaxo as well. After all, why sign into two or three different sites when you can just use one?
The third advantage would be the ability to create video conferences (huddles) with one or more of your contacts. While not something Facebook particularly cares about (yet), it’s certainly something that has the potential to eat into Skype’s business model. And unlike Skype, it’s integrated into the Google+ platform, so no additional applications need to be run (and if you think Microsoft isn’t planning on integrating Skype into all their online offerings, you haven’t been paying attention). And since Facebook doesn’t currently offer multi-way video conferencing, the advantage goes to Google+.
The fourth and perhaps most important advantage for a lot of users would be privacy. It seems that unlike it’s rollout with Buzz where your contacts were automatically searched and enrolled (BAD Google!), Google seems to have learned its lesson with Google+, requiring you to specify which friends you want to involve and how you want to involve them. Facebook has a long history of playing fast and loose with privacy settings (and use of “private” data). If Google can convince users that they will have more control of their privacy with Google+, a lot of people who don’t use Facebook for that very reason will be potential users. Big point to Google+.
Finally, since Google already knows so much about you, having the additional information they would gather from your activity on a high-volume popular social networking site would absolutely cement their place as the one place to stop for advertising dollars. So indeed, this could be the ultimate straw that breaks Facebook’s back: if the advertising dollars going to Facebook start going instead to Google, Facebook will have some real problems.
All of this is conjecture at this point. Like the success of movies or television shows, it’s really hard to predict the ultimate popularity (i.e., success) of social networking sites. It might be wildly successful; it might be another flop. Google+ has the potential at least to make Facebook (and LinkedIn and Twitter and Skype and who knows who else) into the next MySpace.
I wish it success, because having strong competition can only make both Google+ and Facebook (and LinkedIn and Skype) into better products. I just wish it had a different name. Google+? Yuck.
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