All the buzz the past week has been about Google +, the search giant’s latest foray into social networking. I admit I haven’t spent a lot of time in there, but I’ve nosed around quite a bit, and so far I’d have to say I’m underwhelmed. And apparently I’m in the minority, because many of my friends, and a lot of the wiser Social Media pundits seem to be at least somewhat enamored with it, if not downright giddy about the potential of this new product.
But now it’s like there are two elephants in the room, Google+ and Facebook, and neither will acknowledge the existence of the other. Facebook is apparently poised to roll out the first major changes in a long time, and Google seems loathe to integrate Facebook into anything. Sadly, integration would help them both.
For Google, its two previous forays into social, Buzz and Wave, were less than stellar. Now with Google+, the search giant is trying to hit Facebook head on with a full blown social network. And while, as many point out, this is really a “beta” product and there will theoretically be a lot of tweaks and new features on the way.
Having said that, I’m still not impressed. I think the one who has best summarized my feelings is Mark Schaefer when he says that Google’s party is over before it starts. He makes a very strong point when he states that:
Facebook is not a website. It’s a lifestyle.
So true. We live, and breathe, and play, and work, on Facebook. To pick up and move, for most of us, would be a major deal. Additionally, I think he comes to his conclusions by wisely focusing on user behavior, rather than solely on the technology.
Here are a few of my early observations that lead me to believe that Google+ not only won’t be a Facebook killer, but might just go the way of Buzz and Wave:
1. Open vs. Closed – Facebook has spread across the web thanks to their open graph. Yes, Google has something similar with +1, but it’s not quite the same. Google+ seems to be a bit insular, confined mainly to the Google universe of products and services. I love my Gmail, Gchat, Google calendar, and Google reader. I love the way they function, but this new product isn’t exciting me. I’d rather see them focus more on spreading +1 across the web, much like Facebook has done with its like button.
2. Too segmented – As I was musing to Shonali Burke the other day, Google+ seems like Buzz on steroids. A bunch of disconnected conversations, or “streams” as they call them, that don’t really have a home. They just exist. Additionally, while some love the interface, I feel it lacks organization. Almost like a very segmented version of the Facebook newsfeed, without the benefit of an anchor. It’s hard to follow, even for this A.D.D. guy. And the profile pages aren’t very compelling. The entire interface feels rather clunky. The best feature is the ability to drag and drop, but i still don’t always know what I’m looking at. Granted, it takes time to learn a new interface, but this one seems a bit scattered.
3. Circles aren’t natural – I don’t believe that most of us segment our friends into nice neat little compartments. Again, this was something Shonali and I agree on, and I think my friend Marijean Jaggers put it well when she said she needed Venn diagrams. For me, I prefer to use my mental filters, rather than physical filters, to organize friends. Having said that, I think Facebook could strike back very easily by offering an easier drag and drop option for grouping friends, rather than their current list model which is time consuming and cumbersome. That one move would take a lot of the shine off of Google+ very quickly.
4. Age barriers – Most full-blown social networks, with the exception of perhaps Twitter, have started with a young audience, then grew older. My gut feeling on Google+ is that it will skew older immediately and will have very little allure to those under 25. I think that for any social network to survive, you’ll need to attract the younger demographics. I believe this is crucial for long-term survival. With Facebook, if you follow the rules, it’s become an automatic right of passage: you turn 13 and you get on Facebook. It’s something kids look forward to. I don’t see this happening for Google. In fact, I think the younger generation will avoid it.
6. Can it grow fast enough? – The only way this new network works is if your friends show up. I have a feeling we will see a huge early rush to check it out, but, like Buzz, many will drift away. I’m already seeing a slowdown in activity because it seems rather one-dimensional. It just doesn’t even seem very social to me. Boring amplified is still boring. Unless your friends show up to the party, it’s not much of a party. I also have mixed feelings on the invite model. Remember when people were clamoring for Wave invites? Didn’t take long before you couldn’t find any more takers. In the early stages it might work well to generate interest, but the invite model can lead to increased expectations that will lead to disappointment, if those expectations go unmet.
7. Who the heck are these people, anyway? – My inbox has been inundated with emails of people contributing to conversations I was a part of, and some of them adding me to their circles. And I don’t know who many of them are! Apparently they know someone I know, but they aren’t my friends or even acquaintances. I know I can block them, and I’m sure if I played around with the privacy settings I could change this a bit, but again, it feels a lot like Buzz, or perhaps a bunch of LinkedIn discussion groups. Plus, many of the early adopters are firmly entrenched in the tech and social media realms. They tend to get excited about these things, but will the general public?
8. One house or two? – Do we need two big networks? I don’t think so. We’ve invested so much in Facebook that it would be a big investment of time, and learning, to make the switch. So then if we don’t switch, do we set up house and operate in two homes? I don’t think many of us will do this. And don’t compare it to the relationship between Twitter and Facebook, or even LinkedIn. They are all very different platforms with very different goals and features. I just don’t think the shiny new house at Google has enough to make me want to buy in…yet. Will someone topple Facebook someday? Probably, but right now it’s a juggernaut. Much more important than MySpace ever was, and with more than half of all Americans living on Facebook, they are in control.
9. Video Chat – A lot of people have been talking about how much they love the video chat function of Google+, which is a cool feature. However Facebook has been making noises about a stronger partnership with Skype, and could be launching an in-browser video component as early as this week. Since Skype is already in heavy use among many of us, this makes sense and since Skype is to video chat what Facebook is to Social Networks, the combination of the two could do a lot to keep people on Facebook.
So while I’m not ready to write Google+ off, I’m taking a wait and see attitude. I think the social realm has hit some point of happy, comfortable equilibrium, and any new entries into the field are going to have to knock our socks off out of the gate.
My advice to Google:
Stick to search. You’ve got a great thing going, and by further integrating social into search, you will continue to be leaps and bounds ahead of Bing and the other search engines. Creating a full blown social network probably isn’t the answer.
My advice to Facebook:
Listen to your users, and respond. You hold the cards, so learn from this and make adjustments. A more easily manipulated interface, perhaps with drag and drop features, would go a long way in maintaining your dominance. Continue to improve, but take this as a sign that you are vulnerable; you can be toppled. This is your first serious competitor, so take them seriously. Become a bit more responsive to your users, and you might be surprised how that helps you grow.
My advice to both of them:
Play nice. Look across the room. That other elephant could be a powerful ally. If Facebook and Google were to work together, there’s no telling what might happen. Supporting one anothers platforms would be huge. Stop pretending the other elephant doesn’t exist.
What are your feelings on Google+ so far? Do you love it? Hate it? Lukewarm? Do you think this could be the one to topple Facebook, or will it find it’s own niche?