Is Google+ social done right?

It's the question I'm asking after watching the six videos embedded in this analysis and reading the blog post by Vic Gundotra, Google senior vice president of Engineering.

To be clear, I've read no other posts about Google+, not even the news story by colleague Tim Conneally (well, I did write the headline -- but that was all). That's typical of my writing. I prefer to have a fresh perspective, uninfluenced by others' opinions as much as possible. All observations I make here are solely my own.

In discussing the headline, Tim told me that many other news stories took a Facebook killer approach, or at least asked if Google+ could be one. I see something different: The anti-Facebook, and Google fundamentally changing the rules of online social engagement -- as defined by Mark Zuckerberg and company, anyway.

Granted, I haven't used Google+, so my perspective here is based on the conceptual design. I expect to be using the service in the next day or so and will share about that later on. Conceptually, Google+ is brilliant, and it has the potential to rise like a Phoenix from the failure Google admits Wave was but hasn't yet conceded about Buzz. Web search is the secret sauce. It's what Google's got and Facebook can only want but not possess.

Search and Share

The modern web is fundamentally about finding things. In a May 23, 2005 post on my personal blog I described web search as "the modern version of the command line" -- or command line for the Internet. It's pure simplicity. But people don't just want to find things, they want to share with others -- and that's one reason for the proliferation of services with sharing options (you can see a few of them at the top and bottom of this post). It's why Facebook launched Like, and before it Facebook Share. Sharing pulls content to the respective service and makes it more relevant not just to users but relationships that matter to them.

But Google is the center of search. There's nothing to push anywhere. Google can, and apparently is, wrapping social features around search. Google is laying the foundation, preparing the framework, for this to happen. Perhaps you noticed the dark strip running atop of the Google search page, which was new to me yesterday. That's in preparation for the + service, as is Google +1, which debuted at the end of March.

During this invite-only stage, Google+ has four components: +Circles, +Hangouts, +Mobile and +Sparks. Three start directly from the search page but the +You button anchors all.

Gang of Four

Search is the staging ground for all -- if for no other reason than Google's home page launches the different experiences. What they are:

+Circles -- online places users create to socialize and interact with different groups of people, not everyone. They're private to anyone who isn't designated to participate. So Jake can share openly with his Tea Party friends without alienating his Clinton-era Democratic parents.

+Hangouts -- multi-person video calling.

+Mobile -- group messaging, location services and photo and video uploads and sharing.

+Sparks -- social sharing service.

BTW, from a marketing perspective +You evokes positive and personal connotations. It's a great moniker around which to hang Google+ and should be easy to market.

Overall, based on the information provided by Google, these are rudimentary social services with potential but they're not exceptional. Search and their direct access from the Google home page is the big deal here. I may feel differently after using Google+.

The Anti-Facebook

I've often called Facebook the anti-social network. Its success is one of the oddest since Mosaic set off the web revolution in the mid 1990s. The service is supposed to be a social network, but in many ways it was created by people who don't seem to easily make or maintain relationships. What? You think cofounder Zuckerberg is a social maven? Facebook too often is the center of relationships rather than enabler of them. How many times have you seen someone Facebooking in a crowd -- being with the people who are absent rather than those that are present.

Facebook also defies social conventions, by default making all things visible to all people -- or at least every time there are user interface or privacy settings tweaks. Not everyone needs to know your business. Facebook is more a crowded room that intimate gathering of friends eating dinner. That's an attribute not easily changed because for Zuckerberg it's philosophical -- he has repeatedly stated that all things should be public.

Google+ takes a different approach. Gundotra writes about + Circles: "Not all relationships are created equal. So in life we share one thing with college buddies, another with parents, and almost nothing with our boss. The problem is that today's online services turn friendship into fast food -- wrapping everyone in 'friend' paper -- and sharing really suffers".

Whether Google+, or something else, there are plenty of people pissed off enough about Facebook's ongoing privacy issues to embrace a viable alternative. Conceptually, + aligns with Google's so-called Open Principles", which are in many ways contrary to Zuckberg's approach and Facebook's walled garden design. Giving people more control over who they share with is powerful, but Google also is the center of where they find things to share.

Search and + tied to Google search and Android phones give Google the potential to amass a social community extended to its other products and services: Apps (for creating and sharing documents); Chrome (for which new version releases every couple months); Gmail for messaging anywhere (rather than the confines of Facebook's website); Wallet for making purchases; Web Apps (for playing games and other fun stuff); among many others.

Facebook's ad business is booming, but within the confines of its walled garden. Google is command line to the Internet. So anyone searching for anything from anywhere could receive targeted ads just for +You. Related is mobile. Google is now activating a half million Android phones a day. Sure, Facebook apps are available for major mobile operating systems. But Google controls what will soon be the most popular mobile OS on the planet. Google+ is, as mentioned earlier, invite only -- but there's already an app at Android Market. Search + mobile = leverage.

Execution is Everything

Still, for Google+ to succeed as a social sharing/network service, people need to use it. If you're friends, family or coworkers don't use Google+, neither will you. People hang out at Facebook not because the service is great but because the folks who matter most to them are there. It's this critical mass of people that makes Google launching a new social service the most challenging. Microsoft went there with Windows Live -- and offered some compelling social features -- but couldn't wrestle people away first from MySpace and later Facebook. But Microsoft also didn't have the most popular search engine on the planet as leverage. Search helps find what matters to you. In the real world, not some amorphous online meeting place.

Buzz and Wave are failures. Google+ has potential, but so did these other services. It's as much about execution as conception, and it's tough moving into any market with strong incumbent. Yet Google has done it before, starting from scratch and far behind in mobile operating systems and web browsers. Google+ can succeed, if the execution is right. There are lots of people looking for a better hangout than Facebook.

I remember when MySpace was social networking king and services like music made it seem unstoppable. That's one reason why News Corp. paid about a half billion dollars for it six years ago. But MySpace is finished, eclipsed by Facebook, and News Corp. is entertaining selling for $30 million or less. Yesterday, we had a fierce debate here at Betanews about Facebook's future and whether it could reach similar end. Someone asked if Facebook is too big to fail. Is it?

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