It has now been a little over a month since Google’s brand new social networking website – Google+ was launched in a limited field trial. During this time, over 25 million+ people have already joined Google+ making it the fastest growing social network in history. But the billion dollar question everyone is asking is : can Google+ displace Facebook with its 750 million users?
Of course, it is too early to make a call on this and many outcomes are possible. Google+ may sputter and die, or it may live on to become a Facebook killer. Or both Facebook and Google+ may coexist and serve different users and different markets. There are many discussions and articles across the blogosphere arguing both for and against the long-term success of Google+ against Facebook. Many writers make a feature-by-feature comparison of Google+ and Facebook and then conclude that Google+ does not offer anything significantly different and hence will fail. However, they forget that market dominance is seldom determined by features – rather it is most often due to inherent strategic and competitive advantages. Netscape had better features than Internet Explorer and yet lost out because of Microsoft’s market dominance and monopoly power. Having been an active and avid user of Google+ from the very first day, I think Google+ has certain advantages over its rivals that makes it a winner in the long-term.
And so I boldly – albeit prematurely – predict that Google+ is poised to eventually dominate and possibly displace rival social networks - including Facebook and Twitter, as the market leader, because of the following inherent strategic, competitive advantages and attributes unique to Google+:
1. Open Web vs. Walled Garden:
Google+ allows any post to be made public or shared to specific circles. Many users of Google+ have made a large percentage of their posts public. These include celebrity bloggers, journalists and social media stars. Public posts are visible to anyone on the internet even if they are not part of the Google+ network. Posts that are public are indexed and searchable via Google and other search engines. Facebook on the other hand is primarily a walled garden – a closed system with very few public areas exposed to non-users or search engines. Why is this important? Content discovery and organic search traffic. Imagine someone is searching say, about the Airbnb fiasco, or Robert Scoble’s interview with a startup founder or any number of other current topics of interest. Due to the sheer volume and velocity of public discussions and comments on hot topics happening in Google+ at any time, chances are very high that the top search results will lead them to Google+. This person is brought right to the middle of a relevant discussion on G+ and is now itching to contribute and leave a comment. Well, all they need to do is to sign in with their Google account (once the limited field trial is over), and they can join G+ and join the conversation. Google just signed up a new user to their social network. Remember that Google still has 70% market share in search. And when you control search you control traffic. Millions of searches each day will lead visitors right to Google+. Not many analysts have viewed Google+ this way – but it is the ultimate user-generated content factory to drive millions of new users to join the G+ network. It is the perfect complement of Plus for Google search!
And history also shows that the open web has always trumped walled gardens – remember Microsoft Network and AOL? Incidentally, this is also the reason for the constant privacy tussles Facebook has with its users – as Zuckerberg and co. know this and want to pry open their walled garden and make as much content as possible public and visible - so it is found via search and can be monetized better with advertising.
2. Privacy & Trust:
Google+ was designed to give its users better and more transaparent controls on sharing and privacy. Circles is a central feature of Google+ and allows users to easily and selectively share what they post – ensuring greater privacy. Facebook has constantly faced the wrath of it users for the numerous perceived and real issues with privacy of users data. Facebook has not earned the trust of its users. They have gotten away with it so far – but with Google+ users now have an alternative. Although Google has had its own privacy challenges, overall users generally trust Google more than Facebook. Trust in a brand is not something that can be earned overnight – it can takes years. Google+ also gains plus points in trust by allowing users to terminate their account and export all their data very easily. In the long run trust is a fundamental competitive advantage. And Google has that trust – while Facebook does not.
3. The Google Ecosystem:
Facebook is just a social network. Google is much more than just a social network. It is really a massive and pervasive ecosystem spanning multiple sites - Search, Gmail, Youtube, Blogger, Google Reader, Photo, Maps, Books, News, Applications, Mobile and more. If you have an account on any of them you already have – or will have – an account on Google+. The Plus in Google+ becomes the additive social glue that binds all of their services together. To a logged in user Google+ becomes part of the background – invisible but pervasive as everything Google does becomes social. The Google+ toolbar stays with the user as he goes from search to mail to any of the other Google sites. Granted that Facebook has successfully done something similar by having the Login with Facebook, Share and Like Buttons placed across millions of websites. But that still excludes so much of the user’s other browsing activity – search, mail, Youtube, maps, news, applications. etc. where Google has increasingly gained market share. And with over 200+ million Gmail users and hundreds of millions more from their other sites ready to be integrated into Google+ one begins to see the power of Google’s ecosystem.
4. A Blended Experience:
Google+ is not a single application. It packages elements of Facebook, Twitter, a forum, a blog, a RSS Reader, and a superb video chat application. It is this blended experience that makes it different, compelling and engaging in a way that neither Facebook nor Twitter are able to do. You can follow interesting people without needing their permission just like in Twitter, or chat with your friends in private just like in Facebook, or share birthdays and special occasions on video with family across the globe. You can mold it to suit your privacy and interaction preferences. Why is this powerful and a strategic advantage for Google+? A social network that offers a one-stop multi-purpose experience makes more sense for all of us when our scarcest resource is really our time and attention. Users will over time gravitate to such a network – and that is a very powerful competitive advantage for Google+ over both Facebook and Twitter.
5. Better Engagement and Conversations:
Many early users of Google+ – including me – were pleasantly surprised and experienced remarkably higher levels of engagement and interaction than either Facebook or Twitter. Was it just the novelty and the rush of excitement from the ”new car smell”? Or was there something else going on? Certainly the novelty was one reason but there are some other forces at work as well. The experience of using Google+ is like wandering into a town square or a party that is bustling with hundreds of people engaged in interesting conversations and you are free to either stand back and listen or jump right in and contribute without requiring anyone’s permission or introductions. There are a lot more serendipitous collisions with interesting people and conversations. And Google+’s toolbar’s push and email notifications create an instant feedback loop that draws a user back repeatedly into a conversation. Twitter of course makes it difficult to have any real conversations – because of its 140 character limits and lack of any threading or context. On Facebook similar public conversations are certainly possible on Facebook’s fan pages – but it rarely happens. Why? because Fan pages are used by almost everyone for broadcasting messages to, well – their fans, and are seldom used to have active, conversations. It maybe just a subtle difference in perception but it makes a huge difference in practice. Google+ has the design and structure in place to be the best place in the world to have fun and interesting conversations – and that is a very powerful competitive advantage.
6. The Android Connection :
Google is reportedly activating 550,000 Android mobile phones every single day. Every Android phone requires the subscriber to login with a Google account. And so every Android user is a potential Google+ user. Smartphones like the Android are increasingly replacing desktops and notebooks for users browsing the web and social media sites. Google+’s first release of the Android application was excellent and will only get better. And unless Facebook is planning to enter the mobile market with its own phone – which was rumored briefly last year – this is a huge advantage for Google+.
Facebook’s primary source of revenues to drive growth are from targeted banner and Pay-Per-Click ads and Facebook credits in its games from Zynga and others. Currently Google+ does not have any advertisements. It is possible that Google may keep the site free of ads. Google does not really need the renveue and has deep enough pockets to do so. If it elects to do this the site becomes even more attractive to its users. However, it is quite likely they may turn on their contextual Pay-per-click ads. It would be trivial for Google to do this – as they have the most finely tuned system on the planet to serve relevant, contextual advertisements and the largest inventory of ads and advertisers. The Google+ platform then becomes a very attractive alternative to Facebook for advertisers who wish to target ads based on social demographics. Currently Facebook has little or no competition in this space. Google entering this space changes that and the competition puts price pressure and can adversely affect Facebook’s ad revenues. In either scenario – ads or no ads – Google+ becomes a competitive threat to Facebook.
8. Listening To its Users:
The entire Google+ team is actively engaged with and interacting with the users of Google+. This includes the top management, product managers, technical leads and many others. Google seems passionately committed to incorporating user feedback and is crowdsourcing suggestions to improve the product. This is a huge advantage as it will create a product that resonates with users and also earns their loyalty and trust. When was the last time anyone at Facebook or Twitter talked to their users? This is a huge strategic advantage for Google+ over its rivals and will have an impact in the long-run.
Even if they agree with all of the reasons above, most people still doubt if Google+ will ever displace Facebook, for two reasons a) its sheer size – almost 750 million active users and b) Inertia of most users to move their stuff to another network. Network effects create what is often called a point of non-displacement for winners. Facebook is said to be at that point – too big to be displaced. However, there are some fallacies with this argument : Network effects work just as powerfully in reverse – that is when users want to exit one network for another. If you consider that an average Facebook user has approximately 130 friends, just 10 friends who on an average invite 10 other friends to join them on a rival network can create a cascade that soon can become an exodus. People also argue that most normal users – Moms, grandmoms would probably be content staying on Facebook. However, moms and grandmoms will go to whichever network their kids are using to post pictures of the last birthday party of their kids and grandkids. The perceived inertia and barrier to setting up a new account on say Google+ grossly overestimates the effort required to do so – as it takes no more than a few minutes to do so. There will also undoubtedly spring up a number of companies that will make the process of transferring all your Facebook data and photos to Google+ a matter of a few mouse clicks – once Google+ releases their API.
And finally one has to remember that Google is just getting started with Google+. It is still in a limited invite-only field trial and beta. They have yet to roll out major features and applications. Once their new features, API access, third-party applications, and integration with the rest of their properties, are rolled out, all of the above advantages will create a cumulative, snowballing effect that will make Google+a formidable force that could eventually displace its rivals as the market leader.
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