Amazon and its Kindles: witnessing a transformation

Everybody (me included in my previous posts) keeps talking about Google and Facebook as the two Internet Titans. Someone throws in Twitter. When it comes to mobile phones and tablets, people also mention Apple. But what about Amazon?

Amazon started as a book seller in 1994/95 and is now the largest on-line retailer in the World (depending on what metrics one uses, Ebay could be larger, but if we stick to how each company defines revenues, Amazon is bigger). Apparently, that’s not enough for them.

In 2007 Amazon embraced the electronic-ink technology and launched the Kindle, an electronic device with a screen that looks like paper (no backlighting, just a material that changes color). Releasing a new version each year, Amazon is now at the fourth generation and the sales (especially for the third generation) have exceeded expectations.

In the recent months, Amazon made two interesting moves:

  • They released the Kindle Fire, a device that has little or nothing to do with the other Kindles. It’s a tablet with “normal” backlit LCD display. Not nearly as suitable to read books as the other Kindles are. While it is Android based, the Google OS is buried deep under layers of proprietary software, including Silk, the Amazon browser. In order to make the web-surfing experience smoother, Amazon sends the data to Silk through their own servers, which optimize it and compress it to make the navigation from a not-so-fast connection on a not-so-fast processor smoother and faster (they call Silk cloud-accelerated browser). The obvious benefit is that Amazon knows everything the users do when they are on Silk. Neither Apple on iPhones nor Google on Android had ever done anything like that (although a similar solution was adopted by an independent browser for mobiles, Opera Mini). The price of this device (199 USD) is extremely low compared to other tablets. Some even argue that the price is lower than the manufacturing cost
  • The fourth generation of Kindle is pretty much low end and low priced. While on the market devices with higher resolution (such as the Google iRiver Story HD) and color electronic ink displays (such as the Hanvon e920), Amazon kept the display at 600 x 800, with 16 shades of grey. And they hit the market with a fairly low price (79 USD for the Basic Kindle 4 with ads as screensavers – which explains why Amazon never made it possible to customize the screensavers on one’s Kindle).

It’s pretty clear that Amazon wants to drive volumes up. Why are they so eager to do so that they are even willing to bear a loss (if the estimates are correct)? The easy answer is that they want to use their devices to sell content: the more Kindles there are around, the more books get sold. Same goes for movies on Kindle Fire. Some argue that there is another reason: Amazon wants to track consumer’s behavior in order to collect data about shopping habits and optimize the customer experience at their retails stores.

This second element can be brought to the extreme: Amazon is trying to integrate vertically. I mean that customers reach on-line retailers directly or through other “lead-generating gateways”, such as search engines (if they search for stuff) or social network (if they see what their friends have bought and want the same). The “gateway industry” is a lot more concentrated than the online retail industry. Google and Facebook alone make up for the vast majority of these “lead-generating gateways” and retails risk getting squeezed by the giants . It’s pretty natural that Amazon, the top dog of online retail, is trying to take a seat at the “gateway table” too. This is another function of Silk and of the Kindle Fire in general. Amazon wants to control the device you use to get online. Let’s not forget that Amazon is the owner of Alexa, one of the first companies offering Internet statistics. The Amazon guys have seen the value of gathering data about user behavior for years (Alexa was acquired in 1999).

So, let’s see what happens, with movies from Youtube to Kindle Fire and Amazon successfully tasting a new pie.


How Google could boost Google Plus thanks to Youtube

According to the analysis in my blog post, Google Plus is a slightly more attractive product than Facebook but, while Facebook is very well established, Google is just starting. However, the fact that Facebook won in India, where Orkut was well ahead in terms of number of users, proves that it is possible to overtake the leader. Will Google Plus do so? Time will tell. What could Google do in order to increase the chance? Let’s separate the question into two aspects:

  • Increase the number of users of Google Plus
  • Increase the amount of time users spend on Google Plus (ideally by stealing time from Facebook)

The second is more important. When users start spending more time on Google Plus, they will also invite their friends to join them there rather than on Facebook, while even if everyone is on Google Plus, they might still leave it empty and spend their time on Facebook.

Increasing the number of users of Google Plus

Concerning the first point, Google has a pretty massive advantage, which is its vast user base. But there are two types of Google users: the ones who have an account and the ones who don’t. The first are relatively “easy” to bring on Google Plus. They are already loyal customers, they have a high opinion of Google brand and probably know what social networking is. However, they are relatively few (at least compared to Facebook users): by November 2010, Gmail users were 193 million. Now they must be between 200 and 250 million. If we add up the other Google accounts (iGoogle, Youtube, other apps, even Orkut itself, etc…), we probably get between 350 and 450 million users. Even if Facebook managed to bring them all on Google Plus, it would not be enough to rival Facebook’s critical mass. Then Google also has to tap into the second type of users: unregistered people who perform Google searches. While official statistics talk about roughly one billion people, I have a hard time thinking that half of the people with an internet connection (about 2 billion in the World in 2011) have never opened Google. Anyway,there are 1 to 2 billion users who know what Google is, but are a lot harder to catch. Google has several options for them:

  1. Advertising on Google homepage, but Google has never been a fan of spoiling their white neat home page
  2. Adding references to Google Plus in the search results. For example, if someone looks for a restaurant in Chicago, reviews from Google Plus users or the Google Plus pages of some restaurants in the area (when there are restaurant pages) could be displayed. The challenge here would be that the only information that could be shown to unregistered users would be generic, as opposed to what Google could do for Gmail users, who probably already message with people who are on Google Plus and could be shown their friends’ reviews (if their friends chose to make them public). Anyway, the Google Plus name is catchy enough that people would probably subscribe after seeing generic stuff only
  3. Advertising on other Google products (e.g. on Youtube): on Youtube, there are already video ads. A brief video showing how great Google Plus is would probably be a good way to convince people to join. Of course this would imply either increasing the advertising videos or giving up revenues

Increasing the time users spend on Google Plus

In order to make Google Plus users spend more time on it, Google is exploiting the fact that it is the most visited site in the World. Whenever I look for something on Google, if I have a Google Plus accounts, in the upper right corner of the screen I see my notifications. Oops! Somebody tagged me! I’d better check that out! This would work really well, but only at one condition: that my friends do post content on Google Plus! Which at the moment is not happening. In this initial phase, the critical level of activity to convince people to be active and make the reaction self-sustained (just like a nuclear reaction) is not there yet. Google needs to bring users to be proactive on Google Plus, not just to respond to what their friends are doing. How? This is the difficult question. Google is already working in that direction:

  1. Google already links Picasa accounts to Google Plus and updating photos on Picasa implies sharing them on Google Plus too (unless the album is private)
  2. Google recently introduced “+1” extensions for Chrome, allowing people to “like” whatever they see while browsing and share it with their circles

Could Google do more? Asking people “Do you want to share this on Google Plus?” every time they do a web search would be insane, but there are other choices:

  1. Asking a user whether she or he wants to “like” baseball (when there is a baseball page on Google Plus) after they googled baseball matches for half an hour would be a bit invasive, but might be worth testing on a small number of users
  2. Again, Youtube has the biggest opportunities. Everytime someone creates a playlist or subscribes to a channel, etc… Google could ask whether the user wants to share the event on Google Plus. Additionally, all the comments and the thumbs-up on Youtube should be “powered” by Google Plus and end up in the users’ Google Plus profiles. At the moment, I don’t even see a link between my Youtube account and my Google account, even if I log-in on Youtube with my Gmail
  3. The same is true for Blogger, the blog platform provided by Google. Whenever someone writes a new blog post on Blogger, it would probably be a good idea to ask them “Do you want to share your blog on Google Plus”?

And what would you do if you were Google? How would you increase the popularity of Google Plus?


Ideas on how Facebook could keep the lead in social networking

According to the comparison between Facebook and Google Plus in my previous post, Google Plus has a very innovative product, which I believe is slightly better, but I guess personal tastes matter a lot. What would I do if I was Facebook to continue being the largest social network?

Besides improving the “List of Friends” (making it more intuitive and allowing users to send messages to all friends in a list), I believe Facebook should continue making it easier and more real-life-like to communicate with friends over the Internet by coming up with innovative products. I can think of two ways to put this into practice:

  • Improving over Google Hangouts
  • Allowing users to randomly meet their friends on websites, just like they might randomly meet them at the grocery store
  • More integration

Allowing users to randomly meet their friends on websites

Let’s start with the second point. In real life, it happens very frequently to go to a grocery store or to a restaurant and to randomly meet a friend. Few months ago, at a restaurant in the outskirts of Paris, I met a friend of mine from the Netherlands! How crazy that we met there! If, instead of going to that restaurant, each of us had ordered food from pizzahut.com, we wouldn’t have had the nice conversation we had. My point is: why not have the same random meet-up at pizzahut.com? Facebook could develop a browser plugin that, when a user visits a website, displays a notification to let the user know that one (or more) of her/his Facebook friends is visiting the same website. I tried to sketch such plugin (I lowered my monitor resolution to keep images manageable). When the user is just browsing the website, the plugin should be very small and take very little space (or it could even be invisible):

When a user clicks on the plugin (or when a new friend connects to the website), a notification could be displayed in the upper left corner or also in the lower left corner (same as Thunderbird’s mail notifications):

(for the record: the name displayed are the owners of Tech Crunch page). In the notification, there are also three people listed as “others” (people who are not already friends). What is that for? Here’s an example: several years ago, a friend of mine went to an electronics shop to buy a camera. He met a girl who was also looking for a camera. They had a really nice conversation and exchanged phone numbers. Now, their two children must be the most photographed babies in the World, given how much both parents are passionate about photography. These days, an increasing share of retail is going online. If those two had bought their cameras from Amazon, they would have never met!

The plugin could also help in this direction. If a user so wishes, he could also be notified the presence of other Facebook users who are not her/his friends (yet), but are willing to talk to non-friends and share similar demographics, interests, etc… This could be a major improvement in online dating. A matching-algorithm could be used to prioritize people on websites where there are many people browsing at the same time, but at the same time the meeting would have the spontaneity of a random meet up at a location both people like (virtual, but a website is still a location)!

Improving over Google Hangouts

Google Hangouts is a fairly great tool. While it’s hard to find imperfections in it, let’s again take the angle of “as close to real-life as possible”. Then, the image change is not very natural. Besides, in a real-life conversation, you do not always look at the one who is talking the loudest among your friends. Sometimes you just watch a silent one to see their reactions. On top of that, the thumbnails + large stream in the middle looks very “technological”. When you have a beer with your friends, you see your friends all around you and, if you’re in a pub, you see people at the other tables, you partially hear their conversations and you hear the music on the background. This background, while sometimes annoying, is what people want when they have a beer at a pub. Is it possible to reproduce this on the Internet? I sketched (VERY roughly) what it could look like:

Instead of “starting a hangout” on Google Plus, you could invite your Facebook friends to go to the pub. You would see them in large size close to you, at the same table, and you would hear them loud and clear. In the background, at lower volume, you would hear music and the conversations going on at other tables. The people at other tables would be other real-life people, having similar conversations with their Facebook friends. Just like a real pub, you could potentially start a conversation with them as well. Definitely not as effective as Google Hangouts, but potentially more natural and fun.

The implementation would require a Facebook app that includes a 3d engine, similar to the one used in video-games, to allow users to see the pub from different perspectives and maybe even walk around in it (the picture above is a World of Warcraft tavern, with photos taken from the Google search results for “webcam streams” or similar strings). True that in a real pub you would also see people’s backs if they are not facing you, but I guess that would be impossible to implement.

Once the “virtual pub” application is up and running, it could be expanded into a platform, open to third parties. People could open their own bars and lounges on the Facebook platform. There would be a virtual Supper Club, a virtual Hard Rock Cafe, etc…

Both things, in particular the first, also apply to Google (actually Google would have an advantage, given that they already develop a browser, that could integrate the random-meet-up plugin), but I mentioned them for Facebook because Google just came up with a new product and now they’re probably focusing on pushing the adoption, while Facebook is probably thinking “what shall we do to make sure we stay ahead?”

More integration

Facebook has the potential to offer its users more of the services that Google is also offering. For example, they could transform facebook messages into a full-fledged email (with message subjects, an IMAP server, etc…) and they could better advertise the “social search” capabilities of the little white text box on top of the Facebook home-page. Microsoft is investing a lot in social search and Facebook (1.3% owned by Microsoft) could build on it. For example, whenever I log-in from an IP that reveals that I’m in a different city, Facebook could advertise that I could search for restaurants in that city and find some that my Facebook friends commented positively about in the past.

In my next post, more details about what I would do if I was Google. In the meantime, any comment is very welcome!


Facebook Ads seen by an outsider – could they be even better?

Introduction

The first thing you’ll find when you google for “Facebook Ads” is, besides the official Facebook page, a bunch of guides that will explain you how to make good use of them. Because the people who write them probably started using Facebook Ads after years using Google Ads, the main message in most of them is: Facebook Ads are different from Google Ads. The most obvious conclusion is that, instead of putting your links next to search results for “tents”, you need to target people who “like” camping.

A more interesting side of the story is the structural difference. Ads on Google have higher click-through rates, because they are about something specific the user was searching and was interested in even before he opened the browser to look for them. Facebook Ads, on the other hand, are a little bit like billboards on the side of the road. You notice them, but you’re more interested in your friends getting married or throwing birthday parties. You don’t necessarily pay much attention to the Ads consciously, but you look at them for quite a long time (while Google search results are gone after few seconds).

Up to now, Google has had limited success attracting branding campaigns on its search results. Try to google “cool jeans” and, believe it or not, you won’t see many major brands among the ads on the right side of the screen. The ones you do see are usually advertising a discounted sale, not how amazing their products are. Retailers take the lion’s share of the ads. I’m not a marketing expert, but my guess is that they assume that once you are at the googling stage, either you have already decided and want to buy online or you’re looking to compare prices and characteristics. Brands are not very interested in trying to change your perception of them at that stage, because the event of “googling for a given product” is too infrequent to influence your opinion significantly and happens too late in the decision process.

On the other hand, seeing a brand multiple times, while you’re thinking of something else, is exactly what it takes to make you familiar with it and make you think it is cool. A roadside billboard you see every day on your way to the office does that job.

Facebook Ads are more like billboards, but with some advantages:

  • Users can click on them and see the brand website
  • They are surgically targeted to the people you want to reach
  • Lately, Facebook introduced the “Sponsored Story”. If a friend of yours “likes” a brand on Facebook, you probably get to see it once on your feed (if at all). Sponsored stories give brands the opportunity to amplify that event and show it to you multiple times, on the right side of the page, together with the ads. For the past few months, we’ve kept seeing that our friends like Dior, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, etc… and if our cool friends like a brand, we’ll obviously buy it too, won’t we? I can’t help admiring the idea of Sponsored Stories. Word of mouth (people telling others that they like a product/service) has always been extremely powerful. What our trusted friends think (and, to a smaller extent, what anybody around us thinks) strongly influences our perception of a brand, to the point that some brands actually faked word of mouth, by paying people to have enthusiastic and loud conversations in buses or subways about a given product or service. Facebook Sponsored Stories are more subtle and effective: they do not fake word-of-mouth, they amplify the real one, coming from our friends

Could Facebook Ads be even better than they are?

In a word, Facebook Ads are quite advanced. Could they be even better? I believe they could. I’ll focus on the second of the three points above. At present, Facebook allows advertisers to choose target audience by location, demographics (age, sex language), marital status, likes and interests, education and work (this is true for “normal” advertisers – key accounts might enjoy a little more privileges, but I don’t really know). While this looks like a dream to a marketing manager who spent his life buying space on TV and magazines, this is surprisingly little compared to how much Facebook knows about us. Facebook has the opportunity to be a lot more granular in segmenting the audience. Here are some ideas:

  • Depending on the IPs I log in from, Facebook knows how much I travel. This could be extremely useful for a telecom company raising awareness for a roaming promotion or for a credit-card company trying to increase cross-boarder transactions
  • Facebook has a pretty accurate estimate of how much money I make, from many different sources (how much I travel, the addresses of the hotels I log in from when I travel, the addresses of the houses I log-in from, the company I work for, etc…)
  • Facebook even knows how beautiful I am: here’s how. When you look at a friend’s wall to write happy birthday to her/him, on the left you see some of her/his friends. If one of them is particularly beautiful and you’ve got some time to waste, even if you don’t know her/him, you might click on her/his photo to see it full size rather than just the “friend thumbnail”. Now, Facebook knows how many people who don’t know me directly have seen my face by chance in the “friends” section of a common friend’s profile. Facebook could track the share of these people who clicked on my face and I bet that there is a high correlation between my beauty and that share. Wouldn’t this be useful for a fashion company offering discounts on trendy clothes? Or for a model agency’s recruiting campaign? (I’m writing it as if it was a breeze – obviously that ratio is just the beginning of the development of a beauty score, which would need to be sophisticated and well tested)
  • Facebook knows how smart I am, because of all the IQ test games and application that are on Facebook (I’m referring to the part of intelligence that is measured by logic tests). This would be useful, for examples, for companies recruiting people for roles where performance is correlated with analytical skills and IQ
  • If my friends comment on my wall more often than they comment on other people’s walls, then Facebook knows that I am popular among my friends and that I’m likely to be good at entertaining people. This could be used by companies trying to set a new trend or promoting  a new club: if I am popular and I propose to go there, my friends will follow me
  • From the photos I upload, Facebook knows what activities I enjoy more than just my likes and interests say

I’m obviously not saying that it would be easy to put the above into practice and to make money thanks to it. Even assuming that it is possible to get reliable estimates of the beauty, intelligence, popularity, wealth, interests and traveling habits of users, bringing them to the market would be even more difficult.

On the technical side, adding more variables to the available segmentation criteria might make the “cells” too small for the auction to be liquid (ads prices are determined by an auction: for a given segment of users, the price is the “cut-off” point in the supply-curve that fills in all the available ads on the users in that cell. If the cell is too small, this process might become problematic). On the commercial side, making advertisers trust such sophisticated segmentation (so that they are prepared to push the auction price for the very sought-after micro-segments) would take time and effort.

Anyway, on the technical side, math could help. Multi-linear regression helps insurance companies price their products with tens of millions of different “pricing cells” even if the actual number of customers is just a few hundred thousands. It could also help attribute a fair price to “cells” that do not contain enough users to run a point-wise auction. On the commercial side, it would probably be possible to identify early adopters and create success stories to convince the rest of the clients.

I’m curious to see what will be the future of targeting in on-line advertising. What do you think will happen? I’d be happy to read your opinions in the comments to this post.


Benchmark of image hosting services and improvement suggestions

One of my hobbies is photography and I often find myself sharing pictures on web forums about photography. Very often, these forums do not allow to directly upload your pictures on their servers, in order to limit bandwidth. Then, I need an image hosting service to do that. There are many of them. I did a quick comparison of 4 of them, from the perspective of a photography enthusiast, who’s looking for a convenient and quick way to share photos on the web, while preserving image quality. The four contestants are the FREE versions of:

  • Flickr
  • Picasa
  • Imageshack
  • Photobucket

I stuck to the free versions because if one is allowed to pay, another possible solutions is to get some private web space and host the pictures there. On top of that, while in the description of each provider, I also mention the uploaders, in the “results table” I limited my considerations to the web-based versions (rather than the uploaders), because there are several non-official uploaders and reviewing them all would have taken too long. If you want to contribute by adding information, you are most welcome to comment and I’ll be happy to integrate!

Besides commenting on usability and deep-linking policies (fundamental for sharing on forums), I uploaded 3 pictures on each of them to check the image quality. The three pictures are actually the same photo in 3 different sizes: LARGE, straight from my 12 MP camera (4288 x 2848) , MEDIUM, resized to 1072 x 712 (25% of the original size) and SMALL, resized to 536 x 356. I chose a picture that was not very detailed, with large blurred and dark areas to see how compression treated them. Here are the results.

Summary table (of purely web-based use – uploaders are not considered)


Flickr

Links: LARGE, MEDIUM, SMALL

Flickr goes well beyond image hosting. It is the largest on-line community about photography, which gives visibility to your photos and lets you browse the photos of other enthusiasts. In terms of image quality, Flickr is OK, not great, not too bad. All images larger than 1024 pixels are resized. File compression is really really strange. While on the LARGE Flickr produced a smaller file thanks to the massive decrease in resolution, on the medium, which was still slightly resized to fit the 1024 limit, the file size INCREASED. This seems pretty strange, but I checked it multiple times. This might mean that the file is re-encoded, that is not great news, and will slow down the forum page more than necessary.

The MEDIUM image is slightly sharper than the LARGE one (it does not necessarily mean that it’s better, it could have been resized with different sharpness settings)

Flickr records the EXIF data in the web page corresponding to the image, but deletes them from image file itself, which is a big big minus, as it annoys the people who would like to comment on your photo on web forums

Getting link codes is relatively easy and you can even get the BBcode to share photos on the forum. However, it must be done one photo at a time.

Imageshack

Links: LARGE, MEDIUM, SMALL

Imageshack is much more about image hosting than about photo community. You can even upload photos without being registered. On the positive side, they do leave the files untouched, no resizing and no compression. Unofrtunately, though, getting link codes is not exactly easy. The BBcode and html links that are automatically generated for batch of photos will only allow you to embed a thumbnail in your forum post, linking back to the Imageshack page. If you want to embed the full size picture, you need to click on each page, look for the “direct link” and then type the BBcode tags yourself.

Or… you can use the uploader! With the Imageshack uploader, you get the BBcode ready for the whole batch, straight from your application. Kind of cool!

Imageshack also preserves the EXIF data.

Picasa

Links: not available (impossible to get the code)

While Picasa is intended more as a community than as an image-hosting service, it is a lot more similar to Imageshack than to Flickr (at least from the angle of someone who wants to post on web forums). Just like Imageshack, Picasa does not resize or compress photos and does not make it easy to get the BB code of the full size image. Html code (but not BBcode) is provided for embedding a resized version of a photo in a webpage (800 pixels), but I could not figure out how to get the URL of the full size image. The direct link is an https, which only works if one is logged in as the one who posted the photo. Then, sharing the full size photo is actually impossible.

Picasa preserves EXIF data, but only on the full size download (not on the preview images embedded in Picasa pages)

Photobucket

Links: LARGE, MEDIUM, SMALL

If I had to choose my hosting service purely based on convenience, it would be Photobucket. Uploading is quick, the html links and BBcode for the FULL size images are generated with just one click for the whole batch of image I have just uploaded and the EXIF data are fully preserved.

The only (massive) issue is compression. Besides resizing images larger than 1024 pixels, Photobucket aggressively compresses them, to the point that jpeg artifacts and noise are often disturbing. For a photo enthusiast who has spent hours on processing his photos and hundreds (or thousands) of euros for a sharper lens, this is unacceptable.

Looking at the photos, the LARGE one is slightly sharper than the MEDIUM one. This is the opposite of Flickr, but the same considerations about sharpness settings apply.

Conclusion and suggestions to providers

My current provider is Flickr. It has neither the convenience of Photobucket, nor the quality of Imageshack, but it is a good compromise. After doing this benchmark, I’m considering switching to Imageshack (I was not aware of the full-size BBcode in the uploader until now). I need to think whether it is worth leaving the Flickr community for the advantages of Imageshack uploader.

And the suggestions now: if I was Flickr, I would definitely leave the EXIF data on the photo file. If it’s a matter of privacy, just remove location and date, but leave camera make and model, exposure time, aperture, ISO sensitivity, etc… And I would investigate on the (de)compression algorithms.

If I was Photobucket, I would not be so aggressive in compression. Is a 30% reduction of storage and bandwidth costs really worth pissing off photographers? Resizing larger images is OK (most forums have a 1000 pixel limit anyway), but why compress small images so much? On the opposite side, for Imageshack: why not show BBcode for batches of full-size images on the web-based version as well? (not everyone uses the uploader all the time)

You are obviously welcome to comment on this!


Google and social networking – The fight with Facebook

Google Plus recently made a major move in the social networking scene and people are talking about it: who is going to “win”? How will Facebook react? How will Google Plus evolve? While I don’t have answers to any of these questions, I do have ideas of how Facebook could respond to the rival move and how Google could make the best use of its assets to boost adoption of Google Plus. But before getting there, I’ll start with a short summary of Google’s social networking experiences in the past and a comparison of Google Plus vs. Facebook.

Google and social networking

Google has been interested in social networking for a long time. in January 2004, Google launched Orkut. Facebook would be launched a month later, with very similar features. Orkut was very successful in some countries, such as India, Estonia and Brazil. In India Facebook overtook Orkut in 2010, while in Brazil Orkut still dominates. Globally, though, Orkut users are 10 times less than Facebook users.

In October 2007, Google bought Jaiku, a social networking site developed in Finland a couple of years ago. The audience did not show much interest, to the point that in early 2009 the source code was released and Jaiku became a “social networking script” (within Google App Engine) more than a social network itself.

At the same time (October 2007) Google had tried to buy a stake in Facebook. However, Facebook ultimately chose Microsoft. Unsurprisingly, this led to some cooperation between the two companies, for example Bing search was incorporated in Facebook’s home page, allowing users to search their friends’ posts or the entire web. Google was looking for exactly that kind of opportunities of product integration, rather than the very small stake (1.6% of the company for 240 USD million) when they tried to invest in Facebook. And that’s exactly why Google executives were reportedly very disappointed to learn that Facebook had chosen otherwise.

In May 2009, Google launched Google Wave, which someone calls a social network, but which was very much oriented to professional collaboration rather than staying in touch with friends. Anyway, Wave was not very successful. When Google chose to discontinue it, Lars Rasmussen, one of the product managers in charge of developing it, left to join Facebook. Ironically, the unfortunate effect of the Wave dis-adventure was that Google lost one of their product managers (famous, for example, for developing Google Maps) to the social network market leader.

In February 2010, Google Buzz was launched (for the first time, the Google brand was used in the network’s name). The “stream” of events a user sees on the Buzz home page is relatively similar to Facebook’s homepage and clicking on someone you could see something not too different from their “wall”. Compared to Facebook, though, Buzz is more “communications” oriented (to the point that it was integrated in Gmail) and lacked a little bit of the “who I am” part: when you open my Facebook profile, you can see a list of my photos, a list of my friends, my likes, my phone number and email (if I chose to display them). On Buzz, you could only see the posts in chronological order. Everything else was several clicks away.

Google Buzz was not received well by the public. According to critics, on one hand, it was not very innovative (no new feature compared to Facebook), on the other hand, Google’s attempt at building on Gmail’s user base in order to make it popular was too invasive (for example, automatically “friending” the people one most commonly messages with on Gmail led to lawsuits about privacy violation). Gmail users still have the “Buzz” folder in their Inbox, but Buzz never picked up very much.

Google Plus vs. Facebook

Critics of Google claim that behind the lack of success in social networking there was a lack of attention and resources. They say that Google never really thought social networking was that important. Google Plus clearly disproves this type of criticism. First, the launch was performed with the same trick that had been very successful with Gmail: restricted access. People who had an invite to Google Plus could (consciously or not) call themselves cool. Second, Google replicated Facebook’s features better than it had done with Buzz, but at the same time, Google came up with highly innovative features.

Should Facebook be afraid of Google Plus? Apparently they are, as they blocked Google Plus ads and all applications to export Facebook contacts to Google Plus. But let’s take a look at the main differences between Facebook and Google Plus:

  • Before discussing the differences in the user experience, what about the competition for advertisers? It’s true that monetization is probably a second priority for Google Plus at the moment (and it might be never be on top of their list), but still, if advertisers strongly prefer either Facebook or Google Plus, the other might be in trouble (especially if it is Facebook). Facebook Ads are very advanced, but Google is the World leader in online advertising. Will Google Plus equal or outperform Facebook Ads? In this other post I mentioned potential improvements to Facebook Ads. Will Google Ads get there earlier? (assuming my suggestions make sense)?
  • Under the hood: the stuff I read on blogs up to date focused on the visible features. Before I cover those, there’s another key thing, which is invisible. When the number of your Facebook friends grows, Facebook only displays the “top news” on your homepage (you can still click “most recent” and see the whole chronology). The way Facebook prioritizes the news in your feed is a key factor in how pleasant the Facebook experience is and is currently based on how many comments they received and whether they come from your favorite friends or not. Personally, I can’t say that I’m completely satisfied with the way it works. Some times I get boring updates and the few times I click on “most recent” I see items that I really would have liked to see in the priority news. Will Facebook improve it? Will Google Plus do better? At the moment it is hard to say, especially because I don’t have enough activity on my Google Plus to make any prioritization required
  • Asymmetry of friendship: Google chose the “reverse twitter model” rather than the “Facebook model”. You can include someone in your circles of friends, while she or he does not include you. On Facebook, in order to be friends, the approval of both parties is required. (I wrote “reverse twitter” because on Twitter you can choose to receive news from someone, while she/he does not receive them from you, while on Google you can decide to share with someone, while she/he does not necessarily share with you). This is a matter of personal tastes I guess.
  • Invitation management: here I think Facebook is a little better. Inviting someone to join Facebook or inviting someone to “be your friend” are separate things. In Google Circles, it is a little bit messy. In your circles, you see both people who are already on Google Plus and people who are not. If you used Gmail to communicate with a friend who has more than one email address, it is even worse: you see them among the people you might want to invite, even if you are already in touch with them through their other email address
  • Circles: on Google Plus, you have to choose a specific “circle” (Friends, Family, etc… you can also create custom ones) when you “add” someone. On Facebook you can just add them to your friends and, only if you wish to, you can include them in “List of friends”. I read plenty of comments praising Cirlces as an improvement over List of Friends, and indeed they are convenient and intuitive. However, the Facebook approach, while cumbersome (it is not immediate to find the way to add an existing friend to a list), is also slightly more flexible: you can add a friend to more than one list, while on Google Plus you can only add them one single circle. On Facebook, though, you can’t (easily) send a message to everyone in a list of friends, which is a major drawback, but hopefully it will come soon. Again, I guess personal tastes
  • Applications: while Google Plus indeed has a “game” tab, I never received an invitation on my news feed to challenge my friend’s IQ or beat them at Angry Birds. On one hand, this makes Google Plus almost entirely spam-free, on the other hand people spend millions of hours playing Farmville and Mafia Wars.  On top of that, who does not want to be annoyed by applications can block notifications in few seconds. Anyway, Facebook has been around more and developers had more time to make apps for it. Maybe the same will happen on Google Plus in the future. For the third time, I would say there is no clear winner here
  • Huddle: with Google Plus mobile, you can have group chats with your friends from your mobile phone. Facebook does not have anything like that at the moment. Of course you can send messages to (multiple) friends with the mobile Facebook application, but it is designed and implemented more like email than instant messaging. Here Google Plus has an advantage
  • Instant upload: my company still sticks to Blackberries, then please take this as outsider comments, but on Android, the pictures you shoot are instantly uploaded to a private album. You can then choose to share them at a later stage. With FB for iPhone or BlackBerry, they stay on your phone and you upload them when you wish to share them. I don’t see that much of a difference
  • Pictures: Google Plus has Picasa and full size images, while Facebook resizes pictures aggressively. To me and to everyone who’s passionate about photography this matters a lot, but most users probably do not really care (photos taken by a compact camera in the evening and/or indoor are already grainy at Facebook size)
  • Privacy settings: I will not comment on this, because I did not look in depth and because there are tons of blogs that cover this in great detail, but I think it is just because bloggers are IT-savvy. The average user probably does not care much, unless there are significant issues, as it happened with Buzz
  • Google Hangout: this is probably the biggest difference and the most innovative feature. You can have video chats with multiple people at the same time, thanks to the Google Video plugin. You see the webcam streams from each of the the friends you’re chatting with as small thumbnails in the lower part of the screen and the stream from the one who’s currently speaking as a large clip on top of the small ones. Innovative and fascinating, just what Google Buzz was missing

Overall, I believe that Google has a small advantage in terms of the product itself, especially thanks to Hangouts and Huddle, but others might see things differently. I guess personal tastes matter a lot here.

At the moment Facebook is the market leader. What’s going to happen? I read people commenting that Plus will end up (almost) forgotten like Buzz and other commenting that Google Plus will wipe out Facebook just like Facebook (almost) wiped out MySpace. There is a third scenario, in which the two platforms coexist and, in the long term, each of them specializes in its own niche. It is not easy to tell what is going to happen and personally I don’t even think it is that interesting to make bets. What I’m going to do is write what I would do to win the battle, but this post is already too long. Then, in my next two posts, I’ll describe  what I would do if I was Google and what I would do if I was Facebook .


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