What to make of Google+
The arrival of Google+ Pages has caused a scramble among companies for a strategy to exploit this latest social opportunity. But which one, asks Robert Curran.
|Pepsi on Google+|
The big topic in the corporate web world this month has been: what should we do about Google+? Businesses logged it on their radar when it was launched in June, but with the exception of the test user, Ford, they have not until recently been allowed to join in. With the arrival of Google+ Pages three weeks ago, they are – and they are full of questions. These range from the tactical – How do we use the Circles feature? – to (for the most imaginative) Could this replace our corporate site?
Most of those who have been exposed to Google+ find themselves asking How is it different to Facebook?. More of that later, but it misses the real point of Google+. It may look like Facebook, and even share features with it. But that is not its raison d’être .
What’s good for Google…
Google itself says that Google+ is not a social network but an additional social layer on top of all its existing products and properties: ‘It’s just Google… plus’.
This modesty must disguise a much greater ambition. If Google can ensure that a web user’s first online encounter with an organisation is its Google+ page, it could upset the entire world of websites and social media. The organisation may decide that Google+ is the only place to be, and conceivably even decide to abandon its current presence. Unlikely, but that must be a Google dream, and it does of course have the ability to load the dice in its own favour. It has put Google+ links on many of its product pages; more significantly, it has made changes to push it up its own search rankings.
If you type ‘+ pepsi’ into a browser, for example, you will (or should) be presented with a panel immediately below the search field that links direct to Pepsi’s page on Google+. This Direct Connect mechanism is still quite glitchy – sometimes it simply does not work – but the intention is obvious: to divert internet users from websites to Google+.
Google has also announced 10 changes to its search engine algorithm designed to promote ‘fresher’ search results, giving greater visibility to recent and widely shared content. Google+ will be a big – perhaps the big – winner.
Then there is the +1 button, which Google has been busy promoting. This is the equivalent of Facebook’s ‘Like’ button, and reflects how many people appreciate a particular piece of content. Plenty of +1 clicks helps push the site up the rankings.
There will undoubtedly be more moves (how long before you don’t even need to put a ‘+’sign in the search?), but these three elements on their own must be pushing much traffic to Google+.
Moving in the right circles
At the moment, Google+ looks much like Facebook. Profile pictures, posts, photographs, videos, comments, all the essential components that make up Facebook are here. However, there is one essential difference, which is particularly important to businesses: the Friends and Followers metaphor that is an integral part of Facebook and Twitter respectively has been replaced by ‘Circles’. These are a way for users to arrange people (or indeed companies) into separate groups (Circles) so that content can be shared and viewed selectively. Unlike Facebook, Circles let users show different things to different sets of people.
For users, Google+’s Circles are a handy way to ensure they don’t accidentally share their nightlife with their grandmother. For businesses, they provide intriguing possibilities. They allow segmentation of the audience, with each ‘segment’ receiving information exclusive to it.
In other words, Google+ has a clever mechanism to personalise content – either by the user or by a company. For example, a company could create a circle made up of industry reporters and label it ‘Journalists’. It can then share with that circle only the content and news that it wants its members to see. Intel is experimenting here, asking users to indicate which circle they would like to be placed in: Technology Enthusiasts, Newsroom or Life at Intel.
A personal silo for everyone
A potentially powerful variation of this is to divide content by language, or in many other ways. Consider Google+ simply as a platform that can be populated with any kind of material, and it could, at least in theory, take over many of the functions of a corporate web estate – with the difference that users would not themselves have to work out where to go.
Is this a good route to follow? For certain sorts of well-defined information – particularly aimed at customers – it could certainly be a nice way of simplifying the experience. If you were French and said you were interested in hybrid cars, you would only see content about them in your own language; and you would get not only the basic information, but would also see pictures and observe or take part in discussions.
One of the major disadvantages of ‘traditional’ personalisation is that it does not allow people to belong to more than one group. Circles does – users can belong to any number. For example, Joe the businessman and father of a teenager could be in the investor relations, consumer and careers circles of a company.
But while companies (particularly their marketing departments) love the idea of targeting through personalisation, the users themselves may not be so keen. Joe may also be really interested in green issues, but would never be shown the company’s latest efforts to save the world. A few clicks on the website would give him access to that and everything else – does he need personalisation?
Circles do, however, present all sorts of possibilities to the imaginative online manager. Instead of having one corporate or, indeed, multiple blogs, companies could maintain a single Google+ profile, where visitors would be presented with only the blog posts the company intends them to see. Interestingly, Google+ is already being used to host serious discussions – a potentially powerful differentiator from Facebook that Google cannot have planned, but that has just happened as users decided to view it in a particular way.
Another plus is that the search mechanism makes it particularly easy to monitor discussions about a company or topic – valuable for reputation management and marketing.
There are problems, some short-term and likely to be resolved quickly.
*Google+ is far from being a polished product, with too many glitches.
*There is a serious lack of administration tools. Currently a web team is forced to use a single (potentially personal) login to post content.
Other issues are more profound.
*Google+ pages absorb considerable management resources. Incompatibility with other systems – you cannot, for example, automatically feed content from a CMS (content management system) or other social network channel – increases the burden.
*Google not your company controls your Google+ page. What would happen if it decided to close it down (think how Flickr’s existence was threatened a while ago)? For that reason alone, switching from the corporate website to Google+ is unlikely to appeal to many organisations.
*If Google+ Pages keep a Facebook-style look, they potentially bring companies the same problems that Facebook pages do. As Nestlé found last year with its run-in with Greenpeace, no company ever really controls its own page: if it has enough enemies, they can make sure they, not the owner, are the ones whose voices are heard.
|Google+ +||Google+ -|
|Could become an essential platform||Another channel for web teams to manage|
|Highly flexible||Confusing for first time users|
|Could in theory replace a corporate site or blog||Many features still flaky|
|Backed by the might of Google||Low public profile|
|High visibility on Google search||Very limited admin tools|
|Target content to specific audiences||Small user base at present|
|Friends and business can be separated||No memorable URLs|
|Easy to track mentions||No integration with other applications|
|Will it survive?|
Whatever you do, go to the dance
How should companies tackle Google+? There are two broad options – trial and error or wait and see. The first uses more resources, but potentially brings first mover advantage. If you go for the second, at least make sure you have reserved your own page. As Bank of America found with a spoof page, the jokers and critics will move in fast if you don’t. There is a lot to be gained (and little to lose) from merely booking a seat from which to watch it all unfold.
First published on 30 November, 2011