Has it been a ‘game changing’ development in the social media firmament or merely the release of another ‘me too’ social networking program? This is the question that should, I think, be in our minds as we consider the release at the end of June of Google Plus (or Google+).

On the face of it, it is just another ‘me too’ program to join the plethora of similar programs already available and which are discussed in a Wikipedia article. There has been an immediate ‘rush to judgment’ by the technology journalists and so far the reaction has been a case of ‘not bad, some good developments, but is it really different’ – in fact, is it other than a redundant derivative of Facebook and Twitter. In the UK, Dan Grabham of TechRadar posted his take on the msn tech & gadgets blog while Greg Sterling of Search Engine Land provided a US view. In the mean time, Paul Anthony enthused on the Webdistortion blog that “Google have nailed it when they realised that Facebook’s weakness was privacy” – but they might have nailed it as the problem but have they provided a real solution.

Other than a different approach to how and with whom you can share your online posts and an ability to interact with other Google products, what does Google+ bring to Google in terms of competitive advantage? The most obvious objective must be to cash in on the huge and growing social media marketing boom that is generating millions of pounds, dollars and euros for the SM providers and not a lot of measurable ROI for the advertisers. That is an understandable business objective and it fits well with Google’s focus within its other product offerings.

Let’s not make any mistake about it, Google is not altruistic, it is not providing users with free search engine facilities (or email, or maps, and now SM) because it believes in freedom of speech, making knowledge available and in the good of mankind – no, it is providing these services so that advertisers can get their ‘ads’ in front of a carefully targeted online audience on a regular and consistent basis and that makes good sense to the advertisers and they are willing to pay well for the privilege – and, in turn, that makes Google a lot of money. In fact, Google makes more than just a lot of money: in 2010, the net revenue was around $8.44 billion on a turnover of around $30 billion. But if one digs around a bit, then figures released for the 1stQ 2011 suggests that the Google earnings trend is broadly flat (even if it’s still a lot of money) and so it makes sense to see if this flattening trend can be turned upwards through new products.

The problem is that Google+ is not a new product, but a ‘me too’ offering and the people who will use it are almost certainly already on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter. Perhaps the younger end of the SM market, those addicted to free email (think gmail, Google’s email offering) and with a highly ambivalent attitude towards personal privacy, will like the idea of integrating their Google products, but the serious networker using SM programs for business and professional use should be highly wary of any attempt by Google to take more of the market.

From a security and privacy point of view, Google is potentially dangerous. To make their targeted advertising platform work efficiently, they have to know a great deal about their users: where they search and visit online, what they write in emails, what they watch (remember, Google owns YouTube), and now who they network with and what they post. Google does this by monitoring usage and searching for keywords and, given the volume of material, this is obviously done by a sophisticated and highly crafted algorithm-based program. Although this is a technological process and is, one hopes, currently only used in this way, it is, none-the-less, still ‘reading other people’s’ mail’ so to speak and it is only a small step (and a lot of computing power) to a full scale monitoring of users’ communications in a way that is currently only associated with places like the GCHQ (in the UK) and the National Security Agency (in the US). For a business or professional user, this could be placing their commercial and intellectual property in jeopardy.

What Google relies on is the benign appearance they present as an altruistic provider of free and extremely useful services and the fact that online users, especially the younger end of their client-base, are extremely ambivalent about personal privacy: they are not concerned about who knows what about them but they are concerned by what use other people make of that information.

On the whole, I believe SM programs are a ‘good thing’: they encourage and facilitate communication and interaction and they certainly make networking easier. But with 640 million registered users on Facebook (around 29% of all internet users in the world), and with none of the other SM programs coming close, the most likely place from which Google+ will get is registered users is by attracting members from the plethora of small programs and it seems unlikely that Google+ will come anywhere near challenging Facebook in the foreseeable future. Now, since Google+ is a ‘me too’ with a few new ideas (but almost no real innovations), the competitive advantage it hopes to achieve is very difficult to see, and if there is no real competitive advantage, it is unlikely to attract users and it will fail in the same way as Buzz failed.

This then begs the question of why Google is launching their SM offering at all – it does not seem to have a competitive advantage, it is operating in a near saturated market, it is unlikely to challenge the market leader, and unless it attracts significant membership, it will not generate advertising revenue. Is this a matter of hubris, of poor strategic thinking, of a lack of innovative thinking, or simply a lack of vision? Google has for some time been engaged in a sustained business war with Microsoft and seems to believe it can avoid the disasters that the latter has suffered as users and governments have turned against them and their domineering and anti-competitive business strategies. But Google is already being targeted for similar behaviour and it would be wise to have a strategic re-think before something ‘expensive’ happens.

Google, like Microsoft, is an aging member of the internet and ICT community and it needs to concentrate on its core activities rather than getting involved in potentially costly distractions.


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