Is it the End of Facebook?

In an unsurprising move, Google has this week launched its own social networking platform in direct competition to Facebook, called Google+.

The signs had been there for a while that Google was planning a move into social. The launch of +1 earlier this year was obviously a precursor to something bigger.

But now that it has been released, there’s two big questions:

  1. Why has Google gone head to head with Facebook?
  2. Will Google win?

Why has Google Gone Social?

Let’s start with the first question. The reason is simple, they want to make their search results better (and tap into the ad revenues that come with it).

Google has realised for quite a while that social recommendations play an important role in determining what content is best on the web.

With Facebook and Microsoft having previously signed a deal to incorporate Facebook ‘likes’ into search rankings in exchange for Bing powered search functionality on Facebook, Google was left out in the cold when it came to ‘social search.’

Google is very aware that social recommendations, likes, tweets, etc, are just the newest form of ‘link juice’ that search algorithms have been based on for the last fifteen years. But with Facebook closing ranks and giving access to Bing/Yahoo, Google was in real danger of missing out on social ranking factors.

Their solution was to launch +1 (Google’s version of a ‘like’).

However, this only gave them part of the picture. Without knowing anything about the person doing the +1’ing, Google was in the dark as to whether the user was a real social influencer or a ‘Nigel no friends.’ In other words, they didn’t know whether any given +1 was a really valuable recommendation, or one worth next to nothing.

Hence, along comes Google+. By creating their own ‘Facebook’, Google can now see actual information about the person doing the +1’ing. Things like how many connections they have, how influential they are, how often they “hang out” with other influential people, etc. In other words, they are now able to weight +1’s so that a really influential person may be be worth +1, but others may only be worth +0.01.

Relating this back to search results, if all the really influential people (or “cool kids”) are +1’ing certain sites and pages, then those pages are likely to appear higher in the search rankings.

Obviously this has major implications for SEO, but that’s an article for another day!

So will Google win?

I’m going to go out on a limb and say “yes.”

But… not overnight. Google has made a product that takes the best parts of Facebook (connecting with friends, sharing photos and links, etc) but has seemingly managed to overcome the areas that Facebook has continued to struggle with.

In areas like the grouping of friends (called ‘circles’ in Google+), default privacy settings, “hanging out” (by location) and mobile use, Google has a clear upper hand.

The privacy and grouping of friends will probably be the biggest reason users will switch, and every time Facebook has a privacy saga (which is quite often), Google+ will be there to recruit the deserters. There’s also rumours that Google is working on a Facebook import tool, so you can bring your entire Facebook life across (photos, posts, videos, etc) in one go. If that’s true, it’s brilliant.

They also couldn’t have launched it at a better time, with Facebook usage in the United States falling for the first time in Facebook’s history.

What’s more, Google have followed the tried and tested ‘by invite only’ launch that worked so effectively for Gmail.

So, my big call for the day is this:

By 1st July, 2016 (exactly five years from today), Google+ will have more users than Facebook, and by a considerable amount.

Some of you may be calling that statement ridiculous given Facebook’s size and massive head start. But consider what happened when Google took on Microsoft’s Hotmail with Gmail using a very similar strategy.

Also consider MySpace, which only this week was sold off by News Corp for a paltry $35 million (a whopping $550 million lower than what they paid for it) and less than 4% of it’s all time high valuation of close to $1 billion. (As a side note, this massive loss is attributed to the same person who says he “knows users will pay for online news content”, but again an article for another day).

So whilst I do feel that Google+ will ultimately become more successful than Facebook, today marks just the ‘beginning of the end’ for Facebook.

Facebook will continue to be popular, and the companies that have invested into building Facebook fan bases will still see great returns on their investment for a number of years, and probably even after Google surpasses it. What this case shows, however, is that you need to be prepared for when the next social platform or web trend comes along.

The really smart companies are already making a move with Google+ to see how they can reach those ‘early adopters’ and get the jump on their competitors.

 

Craig Somerville is a Director at Reload Media, having worked extensively on the digital and online strategies of leading companies within Australia and around the world. With a background in marketing and economics, Craig's unique experience offers great insight into how the world of search and online marketing is changing in today's rapid marketplace. He is also a Google AdWords Qualified Professional and regularly consults on all aspects of digital marketing including search engine optimisation (SEO), search engine marketing (SEM) and social media.