So is it really worth such excitement? Can it really knock Facebook off its perch? And what should businesses know about the latest social network on the block?
What is it?
There are five main features to Google+.
Circles – this allows you to build relationships much like Facebook, but with the key difference that unlike Facebook, which lumps your closest friends in with more distant relationships, Circles allows you to put your friends into groups. For instance, you could have a group for friends, family and work colleagues, allowing you to communicate with each group in a different way.
Huddle – this is a group chat featre, useful for trying to organise a meet-up with multiple people on the move.
Sparks – finds connections and discussions relevant to your own interests.
Hangouts – a feature working with Google Chat, this offers real-time conversations and video chats with friends.
Instant Upload – enabling videos and photos to be shared in an instant.
Here’s a Google video showcasing these features.
Initial reaction to Google+ has largely been positive – a definite improvement on the confusion that heralded the arrival of Buzz and Wave. Analyst Jeremiah Owyang blogged that after many mis-starts and social product debacles Google had finally "got their social networking offering down right", though he added that:
“ the downside is there’s no reason to call this a ‘Plus’, it’s just a catchup. When it comes to features, Google is at parity with Facebook, but isn’t compelling for a mass immigration of social behaviour.They must quickly integrate Google’s unique products like YouTube, Gmail, Apps, and others to slowly attract users over.”
But others are optimistic that Google has more up their sleeve than what we’re already seeing. Tim Giles, head of search at Positive Digital, says:
“You’ll notice that Google themselves haven’t made a big deal about Google+ and there’s a simple answer for that. The service is going to be much more than a ‘another social media platform. Google+ is a combination of existing Google products, namely Buzz and Wave (and a few others for that matter) wrapped up in a wall of search friendly magic, so yes it will be networking-based but within a more diverse arena.”
“I believe there is always room for another player in the social networking sphere. The most interesting area for me is around the circles of trust that may allow users to split up their social and business personas in a way that makes more sense than Facebook privacy settings. My instinct is that it would be business first with social perks.”
So if that is the case, what could it bring to business? Google+ for business? While Google’s own marketing literature on Google+ is unquestionably ‘consumer’, it is clear that many commentators suspect that it could be a further push towards enterprise web.
Tristan Rogers, CEO of Concrete, elaborates on this:
“Google owns the information web, Facebook owns social web, but as yet, no one can claim to own enterprise web, and I think that is a space worth owning. LinkedIn is a precursor to what enterprise web is, connecting professionals together for commercial gain. But LinkedIn is still a glorified site of CVs. Google+, despite its consumer packaging, brings a collection of collaborative tools together in one application suite. To video chat, aggregate content, share content and build groups of people that you can define rules against is a fundamental requirement within any established organisation. These are fundamental building blocks for organised communication across a disparate workforce. The same can be said of behaviour in the consumer web, but critically, Facebook does not offer such a defined set of tools to work in this way.”
Lisa Abbott, senior product marketing manager for the social media side of Alcatel-Lucent's Genesys, agrees that Google+ is a play for the enterprise, and in particular the small and medium business segments:
“The product capability goes beyond networking and information sharing, as they are incorporating capabilities such as Huddle, similar to Skype, that will position them for the future with enterprise collaboration. ”
The Circles feature, which allows users to set up multiple social networks based on defined relationships, has also been identified as a potentially useful tool for enterprises. Littleton predicts:
“If a brand had its own Google + branded page, it would be a great way to allow employees to use the different circles of trust to work with each other behind the scenes, but include a public face where customers and consumers can engage directly with the different sections of the company (e.g. customer services). It seems they're going after an enterprise client base and perhaps a retro 'extranet' approach works well for today's more demanding users. ”
However, Sarah Evans, owner of Sevans Strategy, and a contributor to the Eloqua & JESS3 The Social Media ProBook, is less convinced of the network’s qualities as an engagement tool:
“In its current state I don't that the Circles concept allows for great brand touch points. From a consumer perspective each Circle is a personal or professional hub used to connect with specific people you've selected to interact with. ”
However, she adds:
“Google+ could allow a rise in the trusted voice of a ‘superuser’. Brands could leverage people who have Circles in their target demographic as opposed to trying to awkwardly fit in. ”
Huddle and Hangouts have also been earmarked as potentially valuable areas for businesses to develop brand promoters, enabling companies to focus on a much more targeted audience by identifying groups that are a good fit for the brand as opposed to just posting an offer on a Facebook wall, for instance. Niklas de Besche, executive director at Meltwater Buzz, suggests:
“As a platform, it can clearly be used by businesses to curate online communities and identify relevant individuals for their brand. The social media industry is maturing from the early days of businesses monitoring and analysing what’s being said out there, and is now entering the next phase – engagement. Essentially this is social CRM – the next big leap for social media: finding relevant consumers and topics, identifying influencers, 360 degree profiling of them, and then building online communities. ”
In addition to this speculation about Google+ in its current guise, it would appear that Google is already developing concrete plans to build out Google+ as profile tool for businesses in the future. While details are extremely thin on the ground at this point, there has been an acknowledgement that work on business profile pages has already begun. Jeff Huber, Google VP of local and commerce, has said:
“We will have (SMB) business profile pages on Google+... I can't announce a date yet, but we want to make them great, and we're coding as fast as we can." Watch this space. ”
So should businesses start factoring Google+ into their plans? Or will Google+ be a flash in the pan. At this early stage, opinion is divided. David Bashford, director at SITEFORUM, predicts:
“I think Google+ is going to do the same as Google Wave, and sink! In order to be successful it must prove that it can offer a new dimension to existing social networking sites, which I doubt very much that it will. Instead, it seems clear Google is trying to force a platform on consumers, leading it to already fail in competing with Facebook which had the first move advantage and was launched and developed ahead of consumer demand. Many marketers have had their fingers burnt by investing time and money in networks that haven’t taken off, so I would imagine Google+ won’t have an effect on the marketing industry unless it shocks us all by gaining significant traction amongst everyday internet users. For brands, this may become another channel to exploit but I would not waste too much effort anytime soon. The value of engaging with consumers on social networks is proven – however, the ultimate goal for brands must still be driving the conversation to their own websites, which should be ready and willing to offer as much interactive and personalised content as any social network.”
However, others offer a more optimistic appraisal.Rachel Clarke, head of engagement intelligence, at marketing agency Momentum London:
“Google does not have a good track record. They fail more than succeed in this space. But early signs are that there has been a lot of thought behind this. The design is good and they have put a lot of effort into the privacy elements, being able to control different levels of privacy for different social circles. As this is one of the major complaints about Facebook, frequently cited as a reason for people to leave, this could be a very important ‘selling point’ for the network. ”
However, she also has a note of caution:
“If you look at the early iterations of both Facebook and Twitter, they were very different to what is available now. As start-ups, they had the advantage of growing slowly and taking feedback from usage. For example, both hashtags and the @ reply in Twitter were developed from how the tool was being used – they were designed by a user, not the Twitter team. Google may not have this luxury, it’s big and expected to produce something that works now. ”
The initial rush of interest has, it seems, even surprised Google. But whether the excitement will still exist once the dust settles remains to be seen. For the time being, brands will watch with interest. Because whatever its track record, and whatever the initial response to Google+, you can’t count Google out.