This article was published on July 3, 2011

Google+ and its two-pronged relevance problem

Google+ and its two-pronged relevance problem
Martin SFP Bryant
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Martin SFP Bryant


Martin SFP Bryant is the founder of UK startup newsletter PreSeed Now and technology and media consultancy Big Revolution. He was previously Martin SFP Bryant is the founder of UK startup newsletter PreSeed Now and technology and media consultancy Big Revolution. He was previously Editor-in-Chief at TNW.

Google’s long-rumoured new social project finally arrived this week and there’s little doubt that it’s off to a good start.

Consisting of Facebook-style sharing and discussion; group video chat; mobile group messaging and automated content discovery, Google+ has been met with the general approval of early adopters lucky enough to get in. Demand for access is high, with invites even being sold on eBay.

However Google+ has one huge challenge ahead – relevance – both in terms of finding a place in people’s everyday lives and making sure it serves users with exactly what they want.

Where does Google+ sit?

Despite a positive early reception to the service, the big challenge for Google+ isn’t pleasing users in its first few days, it’s finding a solid place for it in their lives in the long term. What will that place be? At present, it’s difficult to say. Looking at the currently big social networks, they fit into a few core categories:

Sharing and communicating with friends: Facebook, Hyves, Orkut etc.

Sharing quick thoughts, news and opinions: Twitter

Business-focused networking: LinkedIn, Xing, Viadeo etc.

So where does Google+ fit into this? It manages to sit across all these verticals. The use of ‘Circles’ to organise friends and contacts means you can share business-focused information with your colleagues and photos of a night out with your friends in the same place without too much fear of them crossing over into the wrong audiences. The big question is, can Google convince a groundswell of people to make the switch from their existing social networks?

Opinions vary on this issue. Robert Scoble wrote this week on ‘Why yo momma won’t use Google+ (and why that thrills me to no end)’. He sees the service as being the perfect service for geeks. “Come on now, we geeks and early adopters and social media gurus need a place to talk free of folks who think Justin Bieber is the second coming of Christ. That’s what we have in Google+ right now. Do we really want to mess that up?”

Scoble believes that Google+ doesn’t stand a chance against Facebook. “Most ‘average users’ are locked into Facebook and aren’t willing to consider a new social tool until they hear about it from their friends. Since most of the people who are on Google+ so far are geeks, insiders, social media stars, journalists, and other people… the chances normal people (metaphorically speaking, your mom) won’t hear about Google+ from normal users for quite a while. By then I’m sure Facebook will react (ie, copy) Google+’s best features… This will mean that normal users, who aren’t really going to get involved at this point in Google+’s life, won’t feel the need to switch.”

It’s a fair point. Facebook is already expected to roll out Skype-powered video chat next week, striking out one potential ‘reason to switch’. Additionally, will Facebook users really want to learn how to use a new tool to share with their friends? For many people, Facebook isn’t about the service itself, that’s just a way of easily communicating with friends. If it does that job and doesn’t screw up too badly, people will stay around.

Conversely, others believe Facebook is definitely under threat. Nick O’Niell at All Facebook points out that once you’ve given it a go, there’s always a little red notifications counter at the top of the screen whenever you’re logged into Google. Even if you don’t make Google+ your first port of call when opening your browser, that notification counter will always be there, tempting you to see what your friends have been up to.

Mahendra Pasule, an Editor at technology news aggregator Techmeme, believes that Facebook should indeed be concerned. He points out that although Facebook captures lots of information on its users’ tastes, it hasn’t used this data to improve the relevance of what is displayed to individuals.

“Facebook has done a not-so-great job capturing users’ interests. Many people have ‘Liked’ hundreds of pages just because they were asked to do so by their friends. Facebook’s obsession with and over reliance on the social graph has corrupted their interest graph, and this might well be Facebook’s Achilles Heel in the long term. Google Plus takes a different approach. The goal of Sparks is to capture your true interests. It is in a primitive state at present, but I’m talking about the Big Picture here!”

A ‘next-generation’ social network?

While Pasule is speculating on a future direction Google+ may take, it’s important to remember that Google hasn’t just learned from its own mistakes, it’s had a rare opportunity to build a brand new social network from scratch, with a huge budget, world-class engineers, and lessons learned from a wide range of other services.

Facebook’s sketchy approach to privacy? Google+ lets you not only easily determine exactly who sees each individual item that you publish, but also lets you check exactly what your profile looks like to any other user at any time. Twitter users posting about topics you’re not interested in as well as things you are? Google+ has the ability to target messages at people who will be interested in them, so you don’t spam your geek followers with, say, a discussion about your local city carnival.

So, Google+ can perhaps be seen as a ‘next generation’ social network, building on the lessons learned from the services which emerged in the middle of the last decade. Well-known venture capitalist Fred Wilson, whose fund’s portfolio of investments includes Twitter, Foursquare and Tumblr, points out that social networks aren’t killed by new ones, but by a failure to react and adapt to changing circumstances.

“I think the vast majority of “deaths” are self-inflicted. Facebook didn’t kill MySpace and Friendster, they killed themselves by failing to address the shortcomings of their services and their inability to respond to changing market dynamics, in some cases brought on by competitors. Of course, that fate could be in store for any company, including our portfolio companies, but it won’t be because of Google+.”

Wilson believes that there’s space for Google+ to sit alongside its competitors as an alternative for those who don’t want a Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr style experience. “My dad, for example, doesn’t want any of those experiences,” Wilson says. “He might like Google+. It’s a lot like email. He can curate groups of friends; his friends from school, his friends from the army, his friends from the community he lives in, and share information with them quickly and easily.”

Similarly, journalism professor and self-confessed Google fan Jeff Jarvis suggested in a public Google+ post today that while Facebook is for relationships, Twitter is for broadcasting and blogs are for writing, Google+ is for sharing. Whether users end up taking it in that primary direction remains to be seen, but it would certainly give the service a place as a kind of turbo-powered version of Tumblr.

Google+ and the ‘push problem’ – knowing your audience

The other side of the Google+ relevance problem is all about sharing the right things with the right people. It’s something the service has been built from the ground up to do, but has it done it the right way? Robert Scoble has described his frustration that while you might make a Circle of people who are connected to something that you are interested in, they may not necessarily talk about those things.

I’ve picked out all of the VCs and put them into a circle. I’m looking at that list right now. Problem is it isn’t giving me ONE THING that I expect VCs to talk about. There isn’t one item that talks about funding new companies, gives me some insider look into Silicon Valley, or that gives me tips for how to run my company to get better returns.

Instead I see Joi Ito’s dive pictures, Ryan Spoon talking about Facebook Places, David Lee changed his profile photo, Francine Hardaway posted some funny animated GIF, Paul Buchheit talking about Twitter celebrities. And on and on and on it goes.

It’s a fair point, and one that can currently only be solved by people organising their Circles well, so that they only share information with people who want it. For example, the VCs Scoble refers to could share their holiday snaps with personal friends and their thoughts on tech investing publicly. This will surely start to happen as users grow accustomed to Google+, but the problem highlights an interesting facet of the service – relevancy is curated by the sender, not the receiver.

You may have me in a ‘tech bloggers’ circle, but I may (wrongly) have you in a ‘photography enthusiasts’ circle. I may have something to say about technology that would interest you, but because I’ve categorised you incorrectly, you’ll never know. Meanwhile, you’ll be wondering why I only ever talk about cameras – I was trying to be relevant to you, but because I ‘filed’ you in the wrong Circle it achieves the opposite effect.

Of course, this won’t bother everyone and Twitter has thrived despite the fact that many users talk about a variety of topics to all their followers. We enjoy the ‘humanising’ aspect of knowing what our heroes had for lunch or what they’re watching on TV. Still, for a service selling itself on sharing relevant information, the need to know your audience well enough to feed them the right information is an odd weakness, and one that is only starting to show itself as user numbers grow.

One way Google could approach this problem is to recommend Circles to put people into, based on what it knows about their interests. Google can pull a lot of information about your tastes and interests based on your behaviour on Google+, your Google Profile and even your search history. Sure, the company would have to be careful about the way it implemented this, but the very fact that it could do it, shows that if anyone can solve the problem of relevance, Google can.

A long way to go

Steven Levy, a journalist who has had unparalleled access to the inner workings of the Googleplex over the years, this week explained for Wired how what was launched this week was only part of Google’s full social picture:

“The parts announced Tuesday represent only a portion of Google’s plans. In an approach the company refers to as “rolling thunder,” Google has been quietly been pushing out pieces of its ambitious social strategy — there are well over 100 launches on its calendar. When some launches were greeted by yawns, the Emerald Sea team leaders weren’t ruffled at all — lack of drama is part of the plan. Google has consciously refrained from contextualizing those products into its overall strategy.”

Levy goes on to describe how the launch of Google+ is just “one more milestone in a long, tough slog to remake Google into something more ‘people-centric’.” That long tough slog is clearly paying off, too. Google has clearly learned a lot from the mess that was Buzz. This week, Google-watcher Gina Trapani listed a few of the things Google+ learned from Buzz and Wave. From extensive field testing, to a user-centric development approach, right down to launching with a good mobile app, Google has clearly taken a lot of feedback on board from its previous mistakes.

It’s still taking feedback on board too. Within hours of the launch of Google+, a privacy loophole was identified whereby a post that you’d shared to a limited Circle of users could be reshared publicly (to the rest of the world) by any of those users. Google has acted quickly, blocking the public resharing of limited posts. Googlers are also incredibly active on the service, spotting complaints and suggestions from users and getting involved in conversations.

Whatever place Google+ eventually finds in the world, it’s clear that there’s still a lot of work to be done, and so judging it at this early stage is premature. Given that the Google+ team is working fast to respond to users’ concerns and shaping the service based on feedback, there’s definitely a strong chance that it will grow into a stronger, more relevant offering in the coming weeks.

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