Google's social strategy is often derided because it looks so quaint compared to what Facebook has accomplished. The company's bungled launch of Buzz, which was fraught with privacy problems, didn't help.
Google's statements about its social strategy haven't really offered any real clarity. At the Social-Loco conference on Thursday in San Francisco, Calif., Google VP of consumer products Marissa Mayer described Google's social strategy thus: "Our social strategy is to help users connect with each other."
Taken at face value and isolation, this seems rather obvious, like stating Google's search strategy is to help people find things.
But Google's social strategy isn't obvious. Despite the explicit examples of social products that Mayer provided, like Google's +1 button and Gmail, Google's social strategy goes mostly unnoticed because social computing has been treated as something new, distinct, and different. The fact that Google doesn't look like Facebook is taken as evidence of failure. But computing has been social since the invention of email.
Social, as the word is presently used in a technology context, is just a polite way of saying marketing, as least as far as social networking technology providers are concerned. Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, to name a few, are all building online platforms that generate revenue from marketing data. And social data, so useful for marketing, is just one set of data that can be combined with other sets of data to create valuable, sellable information.
One of the panel moderators at Social-Loco cited a term coinage by noted Silicon Valley investor John Doerr that's more useful to understanding what Google is up to than the concept "social" alone: SoLoMo, or social + location + mobile.
SoLoMo offers a reminder that data sets do not exist in a vacuum. Search expert and Web 2.0 Conference co-chair John Battelle has described several categories of data that are relevant to Google and its kin: There's the social graph (contacts, friends), interest data (likes, tweets, recommendations), search data (queries, history), purchase data (what you buy, credit card numbers), location data (where you are, have been, and are going), and content data (behavior when engaged with content).
As for mobile, it's more of a mode than a data type; it's relevant because mobile data comes from customers who could be ready for commerce in the real world rather than the online one.
These categories can be combined and redefined, but together they represent the scope of information that's meaningful to Google and its competitors. While Google may not yet have a social graph to match Facebook, it has other kinds of data, like geo-spatial data. Google Maps and Google Earth form the foundation of the social layer the company is building. Google Places, which relies on Maps, has five million reviews--the product of social connection--and that number is growing at a rate of a million per month.
In an interview following her presentation at Social-Loco, Mayer suggested that Google and Facebook are approaching the same problem from different angles. Asked whether she thought it was fair to say that Google's approach to social is more geo-centric than Facebook's, she said, "Maybe. I do think that having imagery, having the platform to provide the maps is a big investment. So we have a lot going with Google's hardware and our cloud and the investments we make there. Being able to do something like Street View and developing our own ground-truth maps in various countries, that's a big investment and a lot of smaller companies may not start there. They start somewhere more social."
"We're starting with this investment that we've made to really have this amazing mirror of the physical world available in digital form," Mayer continued. "And now I think we're building on top of that platform to think about what we can do on the social side. We're all coming at the same problem, but based on investments to date you might start at a different place."
Google's platform is an advertising platform, one for which SoLoMo is increasingly relevant, but is also problematic: Social data and location data raise significant privacy concerns. Apple and Google were reminded of this recently when reports about iPhones storing location data and Android phones transmitting it had to be explained away.
Like Apple has, Mayer acknowledged the need to better educate people about how Google handles location data on mobile devices.
"It's important to know what we do with the data," said Mayer. "The fact that it's opt-in. The fact that we give you notice and control, so you know when it's on, and you have the ability to turn it on and off, as well as the fact that it's anonymized and aggregated and there's no way to trace an individual user through that information. I think that all those pieces are very important. So the amount of privacy that you're giving up may not be as much as people think."
Even as she concedes that location-sharing can present some degree of risk, Mayer believes people should consider what's gained from sharing social and location data. "The gain is you can see where your friends are, you can see places that your friends like and have recommended for you," she said. "You can see places that you'll like, and when you start adding all those things together, you can get deals, you can save money. There are a lot of big value-adds that come from being able to say there is where I am, tell me about this place, tell me who's near me, tell me what I can get here. All of those things I think are really key."
As an example of what's to be gained from SoLoMo, Mayer recounted a testimonial Google received about a man in the Salt Lake City, Utah area this winter. The man's friends, she said, "didn't know where he was and they couldn't find him. Suddenly his brother remembered he was on Google Latitude. They looked on Google Latitude, they found the car by the side of the road, he was in it. He had pulled off the road and fallen into a coma. They found him and rushed him to a hospital. Four days later he was fine. The fact that his loved ones knew where he was due to location sharing in Latitude saved his life."
You can find Google's social strategy the same way, by looking for it on Google Maps.