For years, Google has attracted the lion’s share of online marketing budgets. Its advertising solutions provide very real and measurable returns, and are very attractive for online advertisers. However, today, Twitter’s real-time results, Facebook’s social connections and Apple’s walled ‘app’ gardens have attracted ever increasing user bases, firmly gaining the attention of online advertisers and presenting a threat to Google’s dominance in attracting online advertising spend.
While Google is competing on the App front with Android, and its search results are getting closer to real-time, Google’s CEO Larry Page sees social connections as hugely important to Google’s ongoing success in attracting advertising budgets. So much so that he has pegged every employee’s bonus to the performance of social and poured huge resources into the ‘Google+’ social network, the very name of which suggests that somehow ‘Google’ alone simply isn’t enough.
There have been attempts by Google to diversify revenues, with the launch of a premium analytics product, cloud based software services and the acquisition of Motorola Mobility, but the main prize remains in securing the budgets of marketers through efficient and measurable online advertising solutions, which is where 99% of Google’s revenue is derived.
Google’s attempts at social
I once heard it said about Google that there are ‘too many PhD’s and not enough parties’ which when applied to the literal meaning of ‘social’ was a stinging reproach levelled at Google for not being ‘cool’ enough to play in the social arena.
While there may have been some truth in that once, today’s Google is pretty serious about social and their Google+ product is pretty good, the user base for which is still growing even if the number of engaged users is well below the headline figures of total users to date.
On the subject of engagement, consider for a moment the size of the Google+ user base, quoted by Google CEO Larry Page at 170 million in its first year. Now compare that to Facebook, which is 8 years old and in its first year had just 2 million users. While Zuckerberg didn’t have anywhere near Google’s resources in his college dorm room, this does provide some context to the scale of uptake.
Also consider that Google is heavily promoting Google+ via its existing user base. Posts, pages and connections from Google+ are being displayed in search results, advertisers are being encouraged to create Google+ pages for their brands and websites are being promoted in search results with ‘+1’ social recommendations. A significant announcement was also made this week that Google Places is being retired in favour of Google Plus local – a move that places a large existing revenue base for many businesses within the Google+ product family.
Put all this together and you can begin to see why betting that Google+ taking off in at least some meaningful way might be a shrewd prediction.
To take another perspective on this, Google’s 2012 Q1 revenues were more than double Facebook’s bullish IPO full-year revenue projection, and Twitter has been criticised for generating just 1/25th of Facebook’s revenues in 2011. So Google can afford to invest heavily in making social work.
What about the social graph?
The ‘social graph’ is made up of personal recommendations made by users of social networks. A page is seen as more important if it has been shared by more people. Crucially, a page is seen as relevant to you if one of the people in your personal network has recommended it.
Modern search engines, on the other hand, are based on the principle developed by Larry Page and Sergey Brin that the more hyperlinks pointing to a page on the internet, the more important the content of that page must be. Search engines follow links around the internet, finding and ranking content based on this principle.
In my opinion, while there are challenges to overcome, the best method of using the social graph is to combine both traditional search and social signals to produce a comprehensive search engine augmented with personal recommendations, which is precisely what Google is trying to achieve with Google+.
Facebook and Twitter, on the other hand, would have to invest vast sums of money to compete with Google in the web search arena, a feat Microsoft has tried to do with its Bing search engine which has not proved successful to date. Building a search engine based on the social graph alone would provide a far smaller set of sites and pages than the link graph, and would, in my opinion, be open to manipulation in similar ways to the link graph.
So what does this mean for search?
Ultimately, Google will press ahead with its plans to grow Google+, and adoption will increase – how much remains to be seen. In the meantime, depending on the industry and appetite for innovation, many brands will begin to establish their profile on the social network and reach out to their most engaged consumers.
Search marketers will need to ever more consider the implications of the social graph on ranking of sites in search, combining their efforts with social media plans to work towards a common goal.
Right now, advertisers can set up a brand page on Google plus, implement profile pages for authors using the rel=”author” tag to display profile pictures in the search results, add ‘+1’ buttons to their web pages and ensure that social media and search strategies are effectively aligned – a broader topic for another day.
What do you think? Is Google+ dead in the water, or set to take off in a big way?