I like Google…
I’ve been a regular Google user since the day I first discovered its existence in 1999. Indeed, I’ve consistently found Google to be the most useful service on the web. That’s not love, but it’s a very strong +1.
Moreover, I’d say that my preference for Google is an informed one. I’ve given all of the major search engines a fair chance, and even tried a fair number of obscure ones. They all have their strengths, but none have delivered enough utility to me to justify the cognitive load of using more than one search engine for the open web.
…but I don’t need Google.
Nonetheless, I know that, if Google disappeared tomorrow or became inconvenient to access, I’d be content with one of its competitors. I have no particular investment in Google beyond brand loyalty.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. I could easily walk away from Google search, but I’d be apoplectic if I suddenly lost access to my Gmail account — much as if I lost access to my LinkedIn or Twitter accounts. Indeed, Gmail is the only way in which Google has me locked in, but I don’t see my Gmail account as entangled with my access to Google’s other services.
Perhaps that not a bug but a feature: after all, Google trumpets the virtues of “open” and the portability of user data (including Gmail) through the Data Liberation Front. Nonetheless, it’s no secret that Google has a major case of Facebook envy. And if rumors hold, Google is now making the success of its social strategy a major component in all employee compensation.
Social is Give to Get.
Google critics often assert that Google doesn’t get social. But I think the problem isn’t so much with what Google gets as what it gives. When it comes to social, you have to give to get. That is, to get data and engagement, you have to provide social utility.
To start off, Google would love to know who you are. That’s why it developed Google Profiles in 2007. People are more than willing to provide data about who they are, as proven by the hundreds of millions of people who create profiles on Facebook and LinkedIn. Perhaps Google was a little bit late to the game. More likely, people didn’t see enough utility in creating Google profiles. Facebook, on the other hand, helps people be found by their friends and family in a context designed for social interaction. LinkedIn offers people the opportunity to be found by people who can help you professionally: colleagues, classmates, potential employers, etc. Google didn’t give people much reason to invest effort — in fact it seems to treat Profiles as a dumping ground populated by Google’s other products, rather than valuable piece of online real estate embedded in a living social context. Not surprisingly, users invest their efforts elsewhere.
Google would also love to know where you are and where you’ve been — that’s why Google created Latitude in 2009. Moreover, Google developed this pioneering location-based service as a complement to Google Maps, perhaps the best product Google has produced outside of search. Given it’s dominance in mapping services, directions, and local search, Google should be the leader of all things local. And yet, while Latitude has flopped, Foursquare — which launched in the same year as a tiny startup after Google acquired and shut down its previous incarnation– succeeded in defining location-based services as a category. Before Foursquare, the idea of a service tracking your location was one that most of us associated with Lo-Jack and Big Brother — if not with modern totalitarian regimes. Yet, by making a game out of “checking in” to venues, Foursquare inspired its users to willingly — and eagerly! — share and publish their whereabouts. It’s unclear whether this model will create sustained interest (cf. Mark Watkins’s analysis at ReadWriteWeb), but Foursquare’s success thus far is predicate on its offers social utility in exchange for data and attention.
Of course, Google also wants to know what you like. That’s why Google developed SearchWiki (RIP), Hotpot (now merged into Places), and most recently +1. As Amazon, Facebook, Netflix, and Yelp have demonstrated, people aren’t shy about sharing their opinions publicly, given the right social context and utility. Unfortunately, Google seems to struggle with that last part. Google embedded SearchWiki in the non-social context of search — and has launched +1 the same way. It’s not at all clear what users would gain by going out of their flow to annotate search results. Hotpot may simply be a case of too little, too late — people are already trained to go to Yelp and Facebook Fan pages for subjective information about service businesses. Overall, Google has not given users a reason to believe there is significant return on their investment in sharing opinions.
Collecting Data Doesn’t Count.
Of course Google is able to collect a significant amount of data about users’ identities through their search history, cookies, browser toolbars, and purchase history (if they use Google Checkout). Indeed, it is Google inference of user intent in search queries that has allowed Google to become the poster child of online advertising.
But collecting data is not the same as having the user volunteer it. Most users have a transactional relationship with Google, tolerating data collection and advertising in exchange for a free service. Google wants more — it wants users to invest in identities associated with their Google accounts. But Google doesn’t seem to undertand that users don’t make these investments unless their receive some social or professional utility in return.
If it’s true that Larry Page is making “social” Google’s top OKR, then I hope for the sake of my former colleagues that Google has learned from its past experiments.