BYTE -- After several fizzled attempts at social networking--from Buzz to Wave--Google at last is getting it more right than wrong. Via its on-again/off-again beta, Google+ is generating a ton of interest.
It will be harder than it looks, though, to convince even a meaningful fraction of Facebook users to jump ship. And that's essentially what Google needs for its Google+ to be successful.
Even this early on, Google's new service is granular and flexible. That's a good start. Circles, Huddles and video chat are appealing parts of the features package.
So Google managed to get a ton of attention. Everyone's watching and trying to get invites. So far, so good for Google. What's less clear is whether Google can build this into a lasting impression product that gets long-term, engaged use from current Facebook users. There is a lot Google is going to have to do to get there.
The first hurdle Google must vault is making Google+ fully live. This is not just a technical problem. It's also a deeply social one. The current horde of beta testers for Google+ is largely self-selecting. These are geeks, ahem, technophiles. They're interested in checking out The Next Big Shiny Thing.
They're trying out Google+ because they want to. And they're trying it because there's an exclusivity to getting in--at least for now.
Whether they will still retain interest once the service is fully live is still a wide open question. And even if they do, will many millions more follow suit? Google+ won't survive long if it is only for a small but active minority of self-selecting users.
Will this stuff still be as useful (or fun) once everyone else is on it, too? This has got to be keeping folks at Google awake at night. Certainly, we know Google has tied plenty of employee bonuses to the success of this system and has put its biggest guns on it, exec-wise. But are big brains enough to create a lasting social environment that really can give Facebook a run for its money? Hardly.
And then there's the technical side of going fully live. One lesson Google stands to learn from Facebook's mistakes is how important transparency is. Google should be announcing changes--hawk-eyed users shouldn't just be stumbling upon them and tweeting them. Despite its "do no evil" motto, Google is often like all the other big Web services players--patronizing and standoffish. It's acted this way for years. Odds that it will change its behavior over this one new product are slim at best.
In the same vein--and here is another way Google could learn from the errors of Facebook--Google needs to pay particular attention to privacy. It needs to allow for finer and better-informed adjustments to user privacy settings.
So far, the Google+ interface doesn't appear much more privacy-oriented than Facebook. Dividing people into "friends," "acquaintances," and "family" might be a decent first attempt at this. Or at least an appearance of offering more privacy.
But Google+ still looks less centrally manageable so far as user-settable privacy is concerned. At least from a UI standpoint.
Only so much is possible in this regard. Privacy goes against the basic business Google and Facebook are both in: generating revenue based on targeted ad sales. The main difference really lies only in how each one draws and mines data from users. With Google, it's search, email, and mapping. With Facebook, it's acquaintances, explicitl described interests, and activities.
But if they compete with each other and offer genuine improvements in privacy as a result, most everyone wins. And Facebook's gotten fat and happy. It needs the competition. Competition always is best for users and there are no exceptions to that rule.
That said, Google+ shouldn't bank on people migrating to them because of Facebook's privacy issues. Most Facebook users appear not to care. Google and Facebook are almost certainly banking on the vast majority of future users to be apathetic to questions of privacy.
There are already signs that Google cares less about privacy than simply amassing a mineable and giant userbase. At this writing, if you have a Google Apps account that you're using as your Gmail address, Google+ will be inaccessible because no Google public profile exists for that account.
In the same way, a user's profile had to be public to use Wave. But Wave wasn't this shiny. And one of the few bits of information that must be public in a user's profile is his or her gender. Those concerned with keeping away stalkers, for instance, are not amused. And rightfully so.
Under it all lies one great question--will most people even bother with Google+ at all?
Google+ arrives at the tail-end of a whole parade of social networking and messaging services. The winners here now have a solid userbase--or use case--and that leaves little room for newcomers. For general person-to-person connectivity, it's Facebook. For fast broadcast messaging, it's Twitter. For professional contacts, it's LinkedIn. Is there any room for a fourth player at the table? It's going to be a tiny squeeze.
To win, Google has one option. It must be the what it is: a filtering and sorting system for the world. Not a social network. You are on Facebook, but you use Google. The inherent utility of most Google offerings is the biggest argument Google has. Certainly, its utility easily rivals anything Facebook has ever released, with the possible exception of Farmville. And that's not to everyone's taste.
If Google can make Google+ appear as an intelligent and obvious extension of what it already does, and a natural extension, then and only then will it really create the exodus of users from Facebook it needs to succeed. It must happen or appear to happen naturally and organically. That's the toughest challenge of all: not looking like they're trying so hard. Acting natural doesn't come naturally to anybody.
Facebook's own ongoing integration machine, aided by Google enemy Microsoft and its newly acquired Skype, is a formidable one. Google isn't going to beat it feature for feature and it shouldn't try.
Rather, Google's best strategy is to to make the whole package as compelling a case as possible for those who already use at least one aspect of Google's services. Hook them once--hook them good and hard--and maybe just maybe Google stands a chance of hooking them everywhere else. Huge maybe.
The success of Google+ is anything but a no-brainer. I'll be watching closely for you. For BYTE, I'm Serdar Yegulalp.
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