Five years ago, Yahoo! had a plan for beating Google at its own game. It would encourage members of its huge online audience to vote for web pages they liked by “tagging” them. Out of this outpouring would come a more personal and social web, one that was filtered by Yahoo’s users rather than Google’s algorithms.
Fast forward to the present, and there’s a distinctly similar echo in what Google has come up with in its own latest attempt to counter a certain fast-growing social networking site.
Facebook’s “Like” buttons may have sprouted across the web over the past year, but if Google has its way we will all soon be “plus-one-ing” – the inelegant new phrase that describes its move into social, whereby we can click on the “+1” buttons due to appear on its search results and, eventually, other web pages.
The comparison with the now-struggling Yahoo, and the sight of Google copying one of Facebook’s more successful moves, raises the uncomfortable feeling that the search group is running out of ideas.
When Larry Page marked his elevation to chief executive this month with the blunt message to Googlers that a large part of their bonuses will be tied to the company’s success in social, it only added to a sense that urgency is turning to panic.
But it would be a mistake to write Google off. It has some prime assets already in place for its social push and it undeniably has the staying power. Also, it has more in common with Facebook than the usual “search algorithm v social network” contrast suggests. Both see themselves as utilities on the web, with a mission to help a large slice of the world’s population communicate and connect with things they’re interested in.
If Facebook’s key asset is its “social graph” – the web of its users’ personal connections – then Google has its own, implicit networks of relationships to mine. By tapping your most frequent Gmail connections, your list of friends on its Chat service and your phonebook on one of its Android devices, it has plenty of ways to divine your social relationships. It can supplement that by drawing on connections from services like Twitter.
Until now, Google’s main problem has been that it just hasn’t found anything very compelling to do with this information.
That’s where the “+1” voting system comes in. Smartly, it got a low-key launch (lessons learnt here from the debacle around Buzz, the rudimentary social networking service that attracted criticism last year over its handling of privacy). Websites will have good reasons to display the +1 buttons: votes will feed into Google’s search system and could help their rankings.
More of an issue is what users will get out of clicking those buttons – there is no social networking site to collect all those preferences and display them to friends. But as Google starts to show what your contacts have “plus-owned” in the search results you see, the draw could strengthen.
There are other pieces that need to fall into place. Google needs more users to set up profiles and add personal information about themselves, as they do on Facebook. Then, the value of having a Google profile should start to become more apparent.
To feed this virtuous circle, Google needs to find many more things for users to share. Inevitably, that will mean finding a way to draw in an equivalent of the Facebook status update – something that Buzz has so far failed to do.
An acquisition of Twitter still makes sense, which would bring a new brand and an extra dimension in much the way YouTube did. It would have the added benefit of marrying a company which has become a byword for the failure to find an effective business model, with one that is sitting on a geyser of cash.
Larry Page’s “social bonus” kicks in for Googlers in the final quarter of this year. That might be a little early to see real results from the latest social push, but the message he has sent is not unreasonable: Google does not need to build a new social network from scratch and is closer than it may look to seeing some results.
None of this is to belittle the severity of the challenge. Simply welding social behaviour on to an existing web service – as Apple has proved by trying to attach its Ping music network to iTunes – does not work unless users see some compelling benefits.
Google has plenty of ways to make that mistake. Properties like YouTube, Android and the Chrome browser could become powerful platforms for promoting and spreading its social services. But force-feeding users with Facebook alternatives they don’t want or need is a recipe for disaster – as seen with the privacy row around Buzz.
The question is not whether Google “gets” social – it is whether it is as attuned to, and respectful of, its users’ interests as it claims.
Richard Waters is the FT’s West Coast managing editor