Google goes social

This is a highly speculative post, based on recent developments at Google. I should be very weary of making predictions, as almost invariably they turn out to be wrong, however it is still an interesting exercise. I’d be therefore grateful if you were to treat this in that light.

Google matters

It sounds like a cliché and it is, but it is also accurate to state that the internet is always in a state of flux, and there are a few certainties. One of the current certainties is that whatever Google does, that will have an affect on our lives, because it is the most widely used search engine in many parts of the world. Google is the gate-keeper to the world wide web’s wealth of information.

Google’s strength is in search, and the company makes money by serving relevant advertisements to its search results as well as numerous web sites. In addition to its search function, many people have decided to use various Google products and services, such as Gmail, YouTube, Picasa, Blogger, and Orkut. So not only does Google find things that we want for us, it also hosts quite a bit of information that we have created, and consume. But there is one area in which Google has failed to carve out a strong presence. Where on the internet do you share things with your friends? How do you let your contacts (and the wider world) know that you found something interesting? Most likely Facebook, or Twitter.

Two developments

There have been two recent developments that are connected, and signal Google’s move, or lurch, towards something social or relationship-based. It is not a new development as such, as a recent post on Google’s Official Blog (An update to Google Social Search) demonstrates, and it has been something Google has been working for some time. Google is unlikely to ‘kill’ Facebook yet, but the consequences are far-reaching, and it may well shape how the internet looks in a few years’ time. Before discussing the current plans, it may be recalled that Google has already made a bid to become more social. It was the disaster of epic proportions called Buzz. I use Gmail, but I have never used Buzz, and my contacts use it very, very rarely. Buzz lacked several things and was eager to connect to too much data. Buzz never gained traction to take on Facebook and Twitter.

By two recent developments, I refer to the Google Profile ( and +1 or plus one (more information currently at Incidentally, Google wants to make +1 a verb. I despise myself for doing it, but I shall do so, since it will cut the amount of digital ink I need to spill.

Google Profiles are still very skeletal. It’s not yet comparable to Facebook, but it will probably grow over time. It requires a ‘real name’ (see, for example, Profiles overview: Your name and Google Profiles), which is basically the only information a user must reveal to the world, as other pieces of information can be hidden. However, given names are very important to people’s identities, Google is asking for a lot from its users. There are tabs which can be set to show Buzz updates, share Picasa web albums, and +1.

+1 is basically a way to recommend online content you like. It’s a social bookmarking, and social sharing tool, but as I will argue later, also much more than that. My guess is that eventually +1 will take over the roles that diverse Google products currently play, such as Google Bookmarks, Google Reader, Buzz, and Gmail to the extent it’s used to share online things. It is, as pointed out by so many, Google’s equivalent of the Facebook like button. Google has a strong user base, and if it combines these different products and services, and create a focal point called +1, it certainly will be comparable if not larger than Twitter, and can hope to give a serious chase to Facebook. It has no ambiguities and amorphousness of Buzz: +1 is there to share online content.

+1 and Profiles: why are they linked?

Initially, I was completely flummoxed by the insistence of Google on using the real name for the Profile, and why +1 requires a Profile as a pre-condition of using it. However, having thought for some time about this issue, it now makes total sense to me. This is not to say that it is what is actually happening or this is what Google is actually planning to do, since I am not Google, but the reason why I think +1 requires a Profile with a real name is because Google wants to link the personal and the social (or relationships) to search without falling foul of privacy and competition / anti-trust issues.

Linking search with the Profile or +1 directly would have raised serious privacy concerns, and probably landed Google with a lot of problems with competition / anti-trust regulations. Profiles are a different market from search, whereas +1 is intrinsically related to search. As is currently set up, a user must create a public Profile first. You can use the Profile without +1, but you need to have a Profile to use +1. Creating a public Profile and then +1 means that the user agrees to data being shared, therefore addressing the potential privacy issue (see the privacy policy for +1 and General: Access and privacy of your profile). Also, in this way it’s possible to argue that +1 is not intrinsically related to search (even though it arguably is, especially for webmasters), but mediated by the presence and need to have a Profile, a totally different product and market from search. Also the Profile, in turn, is not directly bundled together with the search, and interacts with the search market indirectly via +1. A person can only +1 on Google (the online search market) as a result of person having created a Profile (a different market).

The foregoing paragraph still does not explain why real names have to be used: my theory is that real names are necessary to penetrate into the trusted social nexus. There are many factors in social interactions and how to generate trust between people. Facebook’s successes have been partly (or mostly, depending on whom you ask) due to the fact that real people are using it to interact with other real people. I have had a Facebook profile for a number of years, since the time it wasn’t as big as it is today, and all my contacts are people whom I know in the real world, therefore I can be fairly sure that (1) they actually exist, and (2) they are trustworthy (to varying degrees). I may not share the same taste in music or humour of some, but I nevertheless think they are good people, and wouldn’t dismiss everything they suggest.

Google looks as if it is trying to tap into this network of trust based on people knowing each other. Many users of Gmail are likely to be using the mail accounts with their real names, and interact with other real people, so there is already a relatively large pool of people who, once convinced, would start to fill in their Profiles. But on their own, Profiles aren’t much use. It is when combined with the social sharing and recommendation element of +1, that it becomes useful for Google as argued below, and by extension, to its users. For this reason, a user can opt not to show the +1s in the Profile if he or she wishes so, the +1s will still be visible on search results (see Social connections and +1’s and About the +1 button).

+1 therefore achieves a number of objectives important for Google. Data flow in many ways. +1ing something is a social act, letting your social contacts know what you think as interesting or valuable. The interaction can take place on the Profiles, or on the search results, which, either way, means more people spending more time on Google than on its rival sites. It also informs Google about who you are and what you like and want from the internet. As liking +1 (plus one is a bit long: couldn’t they have come up with something snappier?) is a public act, the data can be compared to like-minded, but unknown and aggregated, people who share the same tastes, and create a more complete profile for the individual. More +1s around, more complete that profile becomes. That, in turn, means more targeted advertisements. Since Google has access to and the ability to process that huge amount of data, eventually Google may even be able to anticipate what you want. Now, that’s a scary thought, at least for me.

To +1 or not to +1

As outlined above, +1 is the critical component in how Google is going to organize information to individuals. As stated in its corporate web site,, Google’s mission is to organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful. It may now deliver such organized and universally accessible and useful information tailored to individuals. Is it a bad thing? Not necessarily. But it’s not something I would like. It’s a matter of personal preference, and Google is entitled to do what it thinks best for its product.

I have a limited Google Profile, and at the moment, I do not see myself using +1. There are numerous reasons for this, but the most important is that I actually believe that there are things that are good, useful, enlightening and helpful in absolute terms. Google’s move towards becoming a more social search engines means, methinks, an abandonment of finding materials that are objectively good, for relativism or inter-subjectivity where voices of friends, contacts and those similarly minded become more important than the content.

Side note: SEO – why +1 spamming won’t work

If one understands +1’s primary function is to tap into the realm of personal choices and preferences, mediated by social networks and groups as well as anonymous but aggregated data, then it becomes clear that +1 spamming won’t bring benefits in terms of SEO. By spamming I mean some sort of mutual +1ing ring, or creating multiple Google accounts. +1 would only work when the site has been +1d by people in the networks that matter to the individual. Also paying someone wouldn’t necessarily work, since the network is based on trust. Eventually, it is the person’s credibility that will tested, as much as Google’s ability to deliver. If you were to +1 something too readily and randomly, then your contacts may start to doubt your good sense. At the same time, I’d concede that if there are really large numbers who have +1d your site, then you’d probably see benefits. Crowd begets crowd, as there are plenty of those who will sheepishly follow the crowd.