[By Alistair Fairweather]
Google is not used to being last in line. For over a decade it has been the darling of both the tech world and the stock markets, raking in both users and profits in record quantities. But in the last five years the gravity of the online market has been disrupted by another super-massive black hole, hoovering up users, cash and press coverage — Facebook.
You might not think of the brash young social network as a direct competitor to the comparatively stately search engine, but the guys at Google certainly do. In fact they take it so seriously that Larry Page (one of Google’s founders and now its CEO) has explicitly linked the pay of each of his “Googlers” to how well the company manages to “integrate relationships, sharing and identity across all our products”. That’s code for “social networking features”, in case you were wondering.
But why is a search engine worried about a social network? For three reasons. Firstly, people are increasingly using social mediums for queries that they used to reserve for Google. It takes no more effort to ask your 150 Facebook friends for a restaurant or dentist recommendation than it does to google “good dentists Johannesburg”. And you’re far more likely to trust the opinion of those friends over Google’s anonymous search results.
Secondly, Google understands that the attention economy is all about sustained momentum. Attention is a more or less finite resource. Any future growth is likely to be slow since most people who can afford the luxury of the internet are already using it. All Facebook needs to do is snatch 25% of the attention previously lavished on Google and the search giant’s profits will be in tatters. Given that Facebook now attracts over 600m users per month, Google has good reason to worry.
Thirdly, Google has realised that it needs the power of the crowd in order to improve the quality of its search results. The machine logic that has made its search results so infallible for so long is finally beginning to buckle under the strain of the hundreds of thousands of professional “search engine optimisers” employed to game the system.
Google realises that it needs to allow its users to tell it which search results are useful, and which are merely annoying. But to do this it needs to know, with some certainty, who is doing the telling. Real users with real social connections offer Google both renewed certainty (that they aren’t automated fakes created to game the system) and renewed reach (since link sharing is such an inherent part of any social network).
Having had a number of high profile failures in the social media sphere (including Google Buzz, over which it is was both sued and prosecuted), Google has hit on a simple and elegant idea called the “+1 button”. Essentially this will allow you to indicate, with a single click, which search results you find particularly useful, much like Facebook’s popular “like” button — on which +1 is clearly modelled.
But the flaw in this strategy is the fact that Google doesn’t have any kind of real social network. The Facebook like buttons works so well because over a third of the planet’s Internet population is on Facebook. Expecting a button to generate a whole network is like expecting a switch to generate electricity.
You might argue that Google does have a social network in the form of Gmail, its globally popular Web mail system. It’s true: hundreds of millions of people do use the service, but experience (ie Buzz) has taught us that e-mail is not the kind of social network that Google needs.
Gmail is inherently private, not public, and the connections are too static and formal to be of much social use. You don’t only e-mail your friends, and you don’t want who you e-mail to be public knowledge. It’s like a tax attorney hoping to start a macramé club using his client list. People want e-mail to be e-mail — not a copy of Facebook.
There’s a lot of overheated speculation in the tech press that this is the beginning of the end for Google. Yes, its lack of social chops is increasingly problematic and, yes, it has only had two truly global hits (its search engine and its Android mobile phone software). But that does not mean it will be disappearing any time soon.
Its increasing resemblance to Microsoft cuts both ways: Google made US$8,5bn in pure profit last year — $2bn more than in 2009 (and this during the worst recession in 80 years).
Given time and persistence, Google may yet get picked for the social dance, just as Microsoft is finally beginning to gain traction with its search engine, Bing. Over 30% of US searches are now powered by Bing. If Microsoft, whose track record on the Web is far worse than Google’s, can make it in search, then Google can make it in social. But it had better hurry — the dance is almost over.
- Alistair Fairweather is digital platforms manager at the Mail & Guardian
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