How Google Can Beat Facebook Without Google Plus

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Look, Google, we've got a plan to help you win on social. There's only one catch: You have to give up on the notion that animates Google Plus.

googlecity.jpg

Out in the Mojave Desert, there's a place called California City that's fascinated me ever since Geoff Manaugh brought its story to the Internet's attention. The city is one of the largest in the state by land area, but its population sits at a mere 14,718. The facts together indicate the grandeur of the planned community's conception and its failure.

tl;dr version
  • Google Plus is an abandoned city in the desert.
  • I.e. "Google's social tool (G+) has no community and its communities (Books, Scholar) lack social tools."
  • Google can still win the social war.
  • But only if it A) abandons the operational idea of Google Plus and B) empowers the users of its existing products.

As pitched by the town's founder Nat Mendelson, California City would be the home of the American dream, a wonderland for sun and job seekers to go after Los Angeles' population burst across that city's eastern mountains. In 1957, land was purchased; roads were roughly paved; street signs were hammered into place. All Mendelson and his investors needed were the people ...

Who did not arrive as expected.

Those people did stop going to Los Angeles. But they didn't head to the enormous planned community taking shape in the Mojave. Instead, they headed to places like Phoenix. In 1955, the town had 350,000 people. By 1990, it had broken 2 million. California City languished, its grid still cut into the ground and viewable on Google Earth (see below). Instead of a megalopolis, California City became a set of half-built infrastructure. Growth went where people were already gathering naturally. They did not want to move out to the middle of nowhere, no matter how great the golf courses looked in the brochures.

Googlepluscity.jpg

Google/Alexis Madrigal

* * *

Last year, Google, which had dabbled in official social-networking applications, released Google Plus. The site has all the things you've come to expect in a social network. There is a rich profile builder, a place for your photos, a nice videochat feature, a conversation feed, and, of course, "Circles," which allow users to sort the people they know into different buckets. Word at the time was that Google's full weight was behind this social push. The journalists who knew the company's insiders best declared that Facebook was CEO Larry Page's obsession.

I was bullish about Google Plus, even if it did feel like a Facebook clone. Google had built out a ton of infrastructure and was pushing Plus out through its major products. This had to be big!

But by most accounts and third-party research, the service is growing its number of users but not their engagement. People are "on" Google Plus, but they are not really ON Google Plus. The infrastructure is there. The street signs are there. People own plots of land. But there's nobody actually visiting town. To make it obvious: Google Plus is the California City to Facebook's Los Angeles.

Google, of course, vehemently disputes that the social network is anemic. They say not to trust the methodology of the people who measure public posts. They tell you that more private sharing occurs than public sharing. They say that the service is growing by every metric that matters to Google.

For example, here's what a Google spokesperson told me about one third-party report:

"By only tracking engagement on public posts, this study is flawed and not an accurate representation of all the sharing and activity taking place on Google+. As we've said before, more sharing occurs privately to circles and individuals than publicly on Google+. The beauty of Google+ is that it allows you to share privately - you don't have to publicly share your thoughts, photos or videos with the world."

But it is simply impossible to ignore that few people actually *use* Google Plus in any way that we've come to define usage of a social network. ComScore says people spent about 3 minutes a month at the site. Google contends that doesn't include mobile traffic or the dropdown menu that appears when you click the red "notification" icon in Gmail and other Google services. But neither of those places seems likely to change the overall pattern here. Deep engagement is not lurking in that dropdown. Let's say actual G+ usage is 10x what the numbers say, so 30 minutes. Facebook's at 405. Pinterest's at 89. Tumblr is at 89, too.

Another small piece of evidence: I added up all the links from plus.url.google.com to The Atlantic. In total, we received 16,000 visitor referrals from the site. That ranks it in the low 30s for us and that sum is orders of magnitudes smaller than we get from some of Google Plus' competitors. BuzzFeed assembled some similar evidence on +1s from around the web along with a devastating excoriation of the site experience.

"Logging into Google+ feels like logging into a seminar, or stumbling into the wrong conference room at an airport Marriott," John Herrman wrote. "It looks like a cubicle farm and smells like a hospital."

Ouch. So what gives? How could Google have invested so much money and credibility in building a service that, by all accounts except Google's own, doesn't work?

* * *

One hypothesis, advanced by TechCrunch's Josh Constine, is that we in the media completely misread Google Plus. The service was not an attempt to compete with Facebook. It was not a declaration of social war. No, it was a classic Google approach to social: develop a method to extract and organize information, but this time about the humans. So, they gave us something that looked like Facebook with familiar text boxes to fill in. They tricked us into inputting ourselves into their database with the promise of a great service. On this theory, it doesn't matter to Google if we use G+ because we already gave them our names, locations, interests, and webs of social connections.

And if they get some users clicking on +1 buttons for advertisements, that increases their engagement rate substantially for those users' friends.

"We are seeing 5 to 10 percent click-through-rate uplift on any ad that has a social annotation on our own Web sites," Vic Gundotra, Google's VP of engineering, told the New York Times. "We have been in this business for a long time, and there are very few things that give you a 5 to 10 percent increase on ad engagement."

And so what if the trade we made for our valuable demographic info resulted in us getting 36 minutes a year of entertainment from Google Plus? Jokes on us, I guess.

But I am not (quite) that cynical. Google did not go through all that effort just to build something that people never use. Perhaps they did not dream of the massive destination site. Perhaps we dreamed that up ourselves because we wanted a real competitor for Facebook. But every sign from inside the company is that Google cares deeply about social and they are willing to risk their best product (Search) in order to integrate themselves into your social life. They want to win in social.

And you know, I think they can, but only by ditching the very idea that animates Google Plus.

timeline_615.jpg

Reuters

Essentially, Google built a social "spine" for their services without building a service that developed into a compelling social offering. There is no meat on the social bone because Google thought of building a social network not as a means for you to connect with friends but as a means for you to connect with Google.

In an earnings call with investors, CEO Larry Page laid out Google's approach to its social effort. "Google+ is about much more than the individual features themselves. It's also about building a meaningful relationship with users so that we can dramatically improve the services we offer," Page said. "Understanding who people are, what they care about, and the other people that matter to them is crucial if we are to give users what they need, when they need it."

Not that mission statements are the be all and end all, but notice how different Facebook's theory of the case is: "Facebook's mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected."

Facebook is about you sharing with the world. Google Plus is about Google understanding you. See the difference? This is why people sometimes say that Google doesn't get social. People don't join Facebook so Facebook can understand them better! In fact, the better Facebook understands them, the more wary of the service they get.

Here's the charitable way of looking at things: Google Plus was the first step. Now that they've got the spine in place, they can use their knowledge of the social web to build cool integrations with their existing products. For example, I think the Circles integration with Gmail is awesome. Try it yourself: stick your family members into a Circle. Then, open up Gmail, and click on the Family circle. Voila: every email a family member has sent you is right there. This is awesome. And you can see how Google Plus could form a social dashboard for the email experience. I'd expect to see a lot more of that kind of thing across Google's services. 

But.

That's not the kind of thing that's going to get people to spend more time with Google's social offerings. You create the circle, move the people, and you're gone. It's a nice utility but it's not what has made any social network work so far. Let's assume Google wants people to post to and spend time on G+. How can they go to the next level? How can they make it easier for people to connect to and share with people they care about?

I think Google needs to stop looking across town at Facebook and look within itself. Google is riddled with invisible social networks surrounding a wide range of products. Even better, Google's homegrown social networks tend to be built around Google's core strength: organized (and organizing) information.

* * *
silverlakehipsters.jpg

Reuters

I've been drawing out a city building metaphor here, so let's keep it going. If Google Plus is California City (or Brasilia), Google needs to find areas where people are already congregating excitedly. They shouldn't build a new city, but revitalize the neighborhoods they already have.

Note that this community building task is different from providing better search service with social knowledge! This is about generating more social connections, not drawing on them to power a separate product. The former is nice, but it's not how you build an engaged community.

So, where are the neighborhoods where humans are already hanging out? Google has a variety of products that while not explicitly "social networks" could easily be thought of as places that help people "share," a la Facebook's mantra. Just think about them all:  Reader. Picasa. Scholar. Earth. Books. Blogger. Hell, even Zagat.

It's these already bustling communities that should form the core of Google's next-level social offering. Take Scholar, which allows users to access research papers. A smallish group numbering in the millions visit the site to find research papers because it works better than academic search engines. It's pretty clear that Google's corporate honchos think the site is kind of a drag and they have no revenue model for it. Little has been done to update the service, even simple things like allowing people to sort by the number of citations.

But think about Scholar as a latent social network. Each paper contains its own social network that Google already crawls. Every bibliography is filled with other social networks. And people searching Google Scholar are likely to be as interested in connecting with the researchers who created those papers as they are with the papers themselves. Why isn't Google making it easy to connect the searchers with the searched? And sure, build a whole other set of social tools on top of that, which make it easy to share with networks of researchers. You want every college kid in America to start engaging deeply with your social network? Make it easy for them to get their papers written.

Or take Google Books, which has been languishing thanks to a similar level of inattention. Every book is also a latent social community. Why can't I lay down markers on my favorite books so that when someone stumbles on some old and forgotten energy book, they see my face there and can connect with me as someone who cares about this obscure thing that they care about? Boom: Instant, fairly strong tie social connection.

I'm just spitballing here. There are so many other things that Google could do with its existing products by working with the communities who already engage around them.

Instead, Google has tended to ignore or piss off its passionate social fans. (That's not to mention the many small, revenueless products -- Wave, Buzz, Knol, etc -- that had their own small but dedicated communities.) So, Google squashed Reader's biggest fans when they decided to integrate that service into Google Plus. The nuts and bolts of the change ruined Reader as a social network for sophisticated sharers of information. Were tons of people using it? No, but they loved it with the kind of passion that few have for Google Plus. Facebook would have tested to see if the changes hurt how often people used the site; I'm not so sure that Google did.

I can see why this is not the most obvious strategy for a company of Google's size: "Build social tools specific to our dozens of products? Bah! Why don't we just come up with a single set and push them out?"

It doesn't seem like Google groks how to create the smaller, self-organized networks of people who become the main driving force behind the larger thing. How many thousands of Twitter users power the whole service? How many thousands of Reddit users drive the whole news system? It I'm sure Google's executives understand the 90-9-1 rule intellectually, which says that 1 percent of users tend to contribute the most to social networks. But they don't get how to identify those key users.

Most companies have to create those kinds of users, but Google just has them sitting around in droves. It's those people rooting around in Scholar and Books and Earth. It's those people uploading ridiculous amounts of photos to Picasa. It's those people who built large networks of Google Reader friends. They are the ones who make a social network awesome and therefore worth visiting.

So, yes, use Google Plus as the social spine. Satisfy the corporate imperative to "understand" me and my web of connections. But now Google should concentrate on fostering the nascent but largely invisible communities it already has. Build them the tools they what they want to help them share. Don't mess up the networks they put in place. Watch what they're doing and double down on helping other people find it.

Does that sound harder than just building one set of social tools that span the Google universe and waiting for the people to show up? Yes, yes it does. But it's an illusion that it's easy to build any social network. Discovering a hive of people spending time together online is an amazing and precious thing. You can't just put a street sign at a road in the middle of nowhere and expect a party to erupt.

So, Google, look inside your already sprawling Google City. Find your explicit and implicit social power users, then empower them to build your social network.

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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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