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:
- Advertising on Google homepage, but Google has never been a fan of spoiling their white neat home page
- 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
- 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:
- 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)
- 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:
- 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
- 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
- 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?
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?”
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!
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 .