August 4, 2011

Why Google+ won’t beat Facebook, and shouldn’t try to

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Google+ is live for about a month now, and after the initial set of invites and follows going back and forward, it has been disapointingly silent in my circles. That may be because in Belgium, people typically catch on only slowly when it comes to online stuff, or because I just don’t have enough friends. Whatever the reason, I don’t believe Google+ has what it takes to outperform Facebook when it comes to informal online communication. And I don’t think it should try to.

Facebook as a communications tool won’t last nearly as long as the continuously evolving concept of social networking. I belief social networking, in its many incarnations, is here to stay for a long time. Taking part in communities, letting others know what’s on your mind, exchanging information, challenging your friends in another round of Bejewelled, knowing what others like, search, read and eat: being social is everywhere and people love it. But Facebook is only a tool that helps you communicate about (typically) personal stuff with (typically) friends (as opposed to colleagues etc). Just the same as LinkedIn is a tool for managing you professional network. And so on.

At this moment, Facebook is obviously quite successful in doing what it does. It will stay successful until its users get bored with communicating about personal stuff with their friends and move on to something new. At that moment, Facebook usage will decline, unless Facebook reinvents itself and becomes that something new. But currently, Facebook established itself as the informal communications tool.

What Google shouldn’t be trying with Google+ is to replace Facebook with more or less the same functionality. Most people don’t need yet another social platform that does more or less the same. Furthermore, replacing an established service or product with a similar one is nearly impossible (think about how long it took for Internet Explorer to finally get some competition). Google+ will have a very hard time in beating Facebook at its own game. This is not only true for Google+. As Facebook investor Roger McNamee puts it: The big social platforms are created. Being social is just a feature, a checkbox. Google shouldn’t try to copy or build another social platform. It should try to invent before Facebook reinvents itself or anyone else invents the next big thing.

The real power of Google is in combining and leveraging all information they have about the users of their products. For example: I love Google Reader not only because it’s a decent RSS reader, but also because it allows me to easily share things I find interesting with my social network and vice versa. The same goes for the new +1 button: it’s a nice additional way to share what I like and see what others like. Google Latitude is another example. Or Google Books. Or Google Maps. The list goes on.

The challenge for Google is to find a way the increase the information sharing between its users and to make the information sharing more visible. This also involves intensifying the network between users. (And then of course to leverage this sharing in better advertising, but that’s the business part of it.) Google+ is undoubtedly an attempt in doing so, but building a Facebooklike entry point is, in my opinion, not the key to success.

I’ll admit that I don’t know what is.

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