Google has announced plans to make yet another foray into the social web: a “+1″ button to rival Facebook’s “like” button.
Google’s problems on the web date back about as far as Facebook’s founding. Before Facbeook, the web was a limitless blue sky for Google. Their captive audience consisted of damn near everyone earth, and they were raking in billions on a staggering volume of search ads.
But as Facebook gained critical mass, crossing first one hundred, then five hundred million members, something strange started to happen: people started relying more on their Facebook friends’ recommendations than Google searches to, say, discover a new restaurant in town. Even more traffic started flowing through the Facebook ecosystem when the company embedded its ubiquitous “like” buttons throughout the web. Whereas before people would run a Google search to find almost every article they’d heard about, now they were seeing article recommendations directly through their friends’ Facebook feeds, and surfing the web by circumventing Google altogether.
As the traffic flowed into Facebook, so did the targeted advertising. You can bet that the roughly $2 billion that came through Facebook’s doors last year is money that surely would have gone to Google search ads in years before Facebook.
Granted, Google’s Research and Development budget alone is $3.7B. Google’s total revenue is enormous—it’s not like Facebook’s encroachment is exactly breaking the bank. But the trend is real and growing—and it’s worrisome enough to Google that the company has tried to establish a foothold in the social internet in order to compete.
So far, Google’s attempts to get social have flopped. There was its early social network Orkut, which sought to compete directly with Facebook. It only caught on in Brazil. There was the Google “Buzz” button, which tried to compete with Facbook’s omnipresent “like” buttons. Buzz not only failed, but it resulted in a legal complaint over privacy issues that Google just settled with federal regulators yesterday.
Today Google is back on the social warpath, announcing the “+1″ button to appear alongside search results—yet another attempt to compete with the “like” button. But right off the bat, there are a few things about +1 that make it awkward.
First, Google doesn’t have a built-in ecosystem where users like to go to share personal information about each other. The idea of sharing web recommendations to all your Gmail contacts is a little off-putting, because you don’t think about your Gmail contacts as a personalized network.
Second, it’s counter-intuitive to recommend a search result, as opposed to an actual article. If you’re searching for something, you’re fishing—by design you don’t have a connection to the content you’re finding. Once you click through to the article and read it, sure you might want to recommend it—but it makes no sense to attach a recommendation system to the process of searching. Google’s video on +1 says that soon users will be able to +1 on actual articles, but that feature is still forthcoming.
Third, sometimes a company, like a real human, just has to admit that it’s not a people person (or a people company, as the case may be.) Apple is a people company, and they’ve used their intuitive, user-friendly interface to great advantage. Same with Facebook. By contrast, all of Google’s social efforts feel awkward and uncomfortable. Take the lingo of +1, for instance. When you come across a search item recommended by a Google contact (not “friends,” mind you, as Facebook ingeniously calls them) the button says “Bobby +1′d this.” Compare “Plus-one’d” to Facebook’s “Liked.” It’s awkward, cold, and off-putting. “Friends” “liking” things around the web sounds like a much more plausible basis for a social revolution than “Contacts” “plus-one-ing” content.
Social is going to be a very challenging war for Google to win over Facebook, in part because of the cultural legacies that underlie the two companies. Google’s strength has always been its engineering genius. We’d still be lost on the web without Google to navigate—we can’t rely on our friends for everything. The same engineering genius that brought us the Google search algorithm brought us Google Maps, and eventually even a self-driving car. I suspect that the company would do best to stay focused on creating new innovations that the world can’t live without, rather than trying to pull back the search ads they’ve lost to Facebook.
Either that, or they need to hire a people-person or two along with all those engineers.