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Is Google Putting a Gun to Brands Heads with Changes to G+?

Judging by the nature and content of a number of reports and commentary which I have read recently – Google+ is becoming a little bit Marmite (you either love it or you hate it). Maybe it is due to the fact that G+ is nearly one year old that people have now decided to come down on one side or the other.

For me, I shared my initial early two cents on Google+ previously and I think the fog is clearing for me with G+.

There is a lot to like about G+ (the new iPhone app, Hang Outs, sharing features) however I think Google is forcing it too much and is missing the core problem.

I think everyone knows how much Google wants to be active in social but with some recent moves I think it has now gone too far and it is putting a gun to the heads of brands and companies by saying get involved or we will hit you where it hurts and where we have power – search! It needs this to drive engagement rather than just drive more users.

Let me explain.

In short – Google+ has a large user base however they are largely (unless Google proves otherwise) inactive and now Google after publically declaring social is a priority (the words of Google CEO Larry Page), is telling brands, use G+ regularly or risk dropping down our search rankings! As a user I think it has benefits but as a marketer, I am annoyed and may just repurpose content to G+ to maintain search listings rather than drive engagement.

And in long…

It’s a Voyage

The growth of a social network should be organic and viral – a voyage of discovery for new members. You can expand beyond your offline social network and meet new contacts online (if you wish).

Google built up a huge hype about G+ leading to huge demand for initial invites. What happened then was all these people got invites, logged in but didn’t know what G+ was about. Was it a destination for B2B professionals (like LinkedIn) or was it was place for personal sharing (like Facebook). People were unsure, the network had not been defined yet so users posted once or twice (if even) and then sat back to wait and see.

The network needs to be defined by the habitants, not the creator. Remember it was users who created the RT standard for Twitter – not Jack & Co.  Users define you, not the other way.

Rushed

I do think Google rushed G+, particular when you look at their iPhone app. The original version was poor which is surprising given that Eric Schmidt openly talked about “Think Mobile First” being the Google approach to all new development. Also look at the success Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have enjoyed due to mobile sharing and engagement. Google missed a trick which was only truly fixed in the last month.

Lessons Not Learned

Google had learned a lot of lesions about social from other social experiments with Buzz & Wave. Like myself, other commentators expected Google to start integrating G+ with its other portfolio of tools (gmail etc).  However for me I don’t believe Google has applied the lessons it has learned. It is still trying to force social too much (it gave every gmail user a Buzz account without much explanation about Buzz).  It is integrating G+ with its tools to drive its user numbers when the core problem is usage (the same problem Buzz had). Fix the problem first, then scale.

The Loaded Gun

Last week, Google started displaying enhanced listings for  G+ Brand Pages next to searches for brands (see more here). This would appear to still be in beta so the quest to understand it continues (as you will see in the comments on that post).

However I believe that this is Google putting a loaded gun to the heads of brands. It is saying if you don’t have an active, regularly updated G+ page (they want fresh content every 24 hours), you will miss out on this prime search position. It is a big call from Google as currently it looks as if it is willing to sacrifice PPC revenue from brands bidding on their terms (the G+ page pop up would seem to push any right hand side ads downwards). This comes on from the recent updates to Google’s search algorithm which also rewards increased social activity and the launch of Search Plus Your World.

To me it would appear that Google is hoping brands and companies go to G+ and by placing 24 hour windows on their activity, they will need to invest more time and resources there (potentially at the expense of other networks).  Is the Google bet – get brands on board and user engagement will follow???

There is no arguing that the users are on G+, the issue is that users are not posting or engaging.  This post claims G+ is a ghost town and I would share similar concerns. Google could clear this up by sharing usage stats similar to the style of Facebook but it hasn’t (or won’t).

For brands to invest in G+, they will need to know expected ROI and will want to understand engagement and interaction rates. Google claims all published data is inaccurate as it excludes private activity and sharing, fine, so tell us the real story! For now the only reward brands can be hopeful of with G+ brand pages is protection of their search rankings. 

The Future

I think Google has upped its bet on G+ and it is now close to going “all in”. If G+ was to fail, it would leave more egg on faces that other attempts.

Reports suggest Google is losing market share to Bing, maybe the team have taken their eye off the ball and should stick to the knitting for now. Cost per click is also down and maybe time would be better invested on search and in expanding mobile search (expected to account for 1 in 4 dollars in 2012) then another attempt at social.

Their latest moves may see more brands heading to G+ but unless user engagement increases, brands could treat the social network as a tool to be updated (similar to their website) rather than nurtured and developed (similar to other social networks).