Some thoughts on the new Google+ Business Pages
“It’s the Wild West right now. They made it so open.”
– David Berkowitz, Vice President of Emerging Media, 360i
Google+ Brand Pages Are “The Wild West” for now: Mashable, November 8th 2011
Earlier this week, Google released their long awaited Google+ Business Page services. Ever since their initial launch in late June this year (remember the entire endeavor is less than four months old), the platform has been deliberately limited to individuals, with often questionable policies enforced regarding what constitutes a real person (you can read more about that discussion here: http://bit.ly/q7MyXZ). Many online have been uncomfortable with the lack of anonymity offered by an otherwise faceless and consciously open suite of products. Unlike its often compared-to social network peer Facebook, the ability for a brand to exist on the platform, even in a limited manner, has been absent, much to the annoyance of social media marketers everywhere. Until now.
One thing that’s key to keep in mind when discussing Google+ is the main thing its users, (and those in the real estate profession) often misunderstand. It’s not Facebook. I don’t believe it is Google’s position to compete with a service that has almost a billion users and is by far the most trafficked destination on the web (today). There are fundamental differences in the approaches of both organizations that is causing much confusion for new users joining Google+ who have the unfortunate precedent of years of using Facebook. Let’s keep some perspective here – Facebook has a good seven years’ head start on all aspects of building a social product over a primarily search and advertising-oriented organization. Google has not fared well in delivering ‘the social web’ (Buzz, Wave, SideWiki), and comparisons to Facebook are still rampant as they continue through their initial launch cycle.
The key to understanding the differences is in the their respective culture of apps. Google already has a massive suite of apps, which touches billions of users every day – GMail, Chrome, Images, Android, YouTube, Maps, Docs, Reader, and so many more. Google’s acquisition efforts have driven much of their own platform’s innovation, as illustrated beautifully here:
This is in addition to the thing that they are most famous for – Search. Currently, what happens between these apps is a fairly disjointed experience, and certainly isn’t one informed by what you, or the other people you’re connected to are interested in. This is where Google+ comes in – it’s the mortar between the respective app ‘bricks’ that will allow you to share the web as never before. This is the key competitive play against Facebook. This is nothing to do with the ‘social network’ part of the conversation – it’s a way for Google to join all of their services together in a way that’s centered around the most important person in their world… you.
Let’s take the counter approach, the one that Facebook has. They already have the ‘social’ aspect of their service dominating the web. The ‘Like’ button is a core component for sharing information between you and your friends, and more time is spent grazing the content of their site than ever before in the web’s history. It’s easy to forget where those last 2 hours went on Facebook. What they have less of a culture of is robust apps built on top of the service (perhaps with the exceptions of the phenomenally successful Farmville or Spotify), and a particular deficiency in search, despite a puzzling content partnership with Bing. Finding anything within Facebook itself remains a huge challenge, particularly if you’re looking for something that was posted in the past – Google still indexes that content incredibly well and remains the firm market leader in being able to find anything.
So what Facebook does begins with the social layer, and then builds apps on top of it. They launch products that are fully formed and roll them out aggressively across their millions of users only when they’re ready – we’re seeing this at the moment with ‘Timeline’. Google have a completely different approach – they already have the apps, so have built a platform of social ‘glue’ to join them all together, making the entire experience stronger, personalized and focused on sharing. They do not wait until products are ‘ready’ in order to launch them. The Google search algorithm still undergoes hundreds of changes each year, and the launch of Google+ is highly dependent upon listening to their users and building a product that’s informed by constant feedback. It’s developer driven. There is much less of a culture of ‘showing the customer what they never knew they wanted’ at Google. Both approaches make incredible digital experiences, but this is why the comparisons between Facebook and Google are ultimately unfounded – Google’s premise is not to build a Facebook competitor or grow a social network on their own platform. They’re building the glue between services that are already incredible successful, and enhancing the ability to share amazing information you find online – something that’s been at the core of their brand since their startup days in a Menlo Park garage.
So let’s take a look at what’s actually been built, as there are some incredible opportunities that the new platform offers for those looking to differentiate themselves online and ultimately build a connected, meaningful online presence outside of what you’ve already established on Facebook. There are some core ideas built into Google+ that Facebook does not offer.
Firstly the barrier to entry is incredibly low. You can be up and running in under ten minutes with a brand page. As wonderful as that is, it’s also a massive problem, as the service is already swiftly filling up with fictitious brands, fake accounts, and the process of official verification is rumored to currently be a slow, manual one on the Google end. Many are simply jumping in blindly and struggling to understand what they’re doing. These are short-term problems that we’ve grown accustomed to as being non-issues within Facebook, and take for granted as items that get swiftly resolved. Alas, many in the real estate industry are already repeating the mistakes they made in Facebook and setting up separate pages for themselves in order to separately manage their professional and personal web presence. For those unfamiliar with the circle functionality with Google+, the clear and clean segmentation of who you’re connected to completely negates the need to set up multiple pages. This is what ‘Circles’ are.
“It was the the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
The Circle feature is one of the huge advantages of brand management within Google+ over Facebook, which currently allows almost no ability to filter messages to certain groups of people you’re connected to (specifically within business pages). For brand marketers, this is problematic at scale, and if you’re managing an account with thousands of followers, there’s no real way to be able to target messages to groups within the overall pool of connections, or even to make groups at all. Imagine if you’re a large brokerage with a national presence – everyone gets the same message when you post something. The ability to target certain demographics or geographies (like you already do elsewhere with your digital marketing efforts) within your followers would be incredibly powerful, and such an approach completely changes the social content strategy a brand implements. Such an approach is a laborious and manual process (for now) within Google+, but possible. This is one of the platform’s killer apps. As people connect to your business, you can now group them into user types, and post content to them accordingly. Tailor the message, make it personal.
One of the things I see a lot of is people connecting to me that I don’t know. Creating messages targeted to getting to know these people can be very powerful. Meeting 10 new people in a Google Hangout that you’ve never met but have connected to you is not only great customer service, but a fantastic way for you to understand why someone would sign up for your updates. It’s the face to face that Twitter alludes to, Facebook visualizes, and real estate agents are so great at. Hangouts are fantastic for brands. It’s literally the open door that much of social media has often aspired to, but struggled to execute. It encourages sharing with people you don’t already know, and for a brand, that’s a huge opportunity, especially if you’re in real estate.
There are so many things that are left to be built into the service, that it’s a fruitless exercise to create a list of grievances of what’s missing – that conversation is already happening all over the web today elsewhere (especially here: http://scoble.it/rXHuZO). Notifications, vanity URLs, media managements, admin problems and hundreds of other ‘precedents’ have been well documented, and are coming soon. One of the killer features that most brand managers have struggled with across existing social platforms has been measurement, especially when it comes to social ROI. I believe this question is going to be resolved in Google+, again through one of their apps… Google Analytics. This isn’t currently available, but the future of this is being heavily hinted at, and it looks incredible. Anyone who’s seen Google’s ‘Ripples’ product will understand how incredible the future of social data visualization promises to be. The suite of what’s coming with analytics is being teased here: http://bit.ly/rTDSc6, truly reflecting once and for all Google’s mantra of ‘data beats opinion’. This is the soil in which brand marketers will grow their online presence in the future.
Given the climate of how the platform is being built, exercising patience and caution becomes a prerequisite. There is much missing, it’s early days, and one thing’s for sure… it ain’t Facebook. It’s closer to Twitter in substance, but much more visual, targeted and app-oriented. It’s a fantastic platform for those seeking opportunities to offer incredible customer service that’s genuinely two-way. It’s not so much a publishing platform like Facebook or Twitter, as it is a way to humanize your business within Google’s existing algorithmic world view.
It’s the glue between everything else you do as a business across all of Google’s products.
I am a firm believer that some of the best creative product development comes when you combine different services to make features available that have never existed before. For example think about what real estate search was like before Google Maps arrived. Think Instagram and Foursquare. Think Google and Skype (this is what Hangouts are). For those looking to do something different with social media, it offers a huge, fertile open space to experiment, share ideas, and grow your business.
But, for those looking to syndicate the same failing content that’s already not working in Twitter and Facebook, I believe it offers nothing.