Google Gets a Charge with Google+

So has Google finally crawled its way into the social Web?

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Steven Cherry:

Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

Remember when Microsoft was blindsided by the Web?

In August 1995, Netscape’s initial public offering on Wall Street valued the company at $2 billion. At the time, a Goldman Sachs analyst sharply downgraded Microsoft’s stock—that’s how out of touch a manufacturer of mere software suddenly seemed.

Microsoft never really regained its footing. Even though, that year, Bill Gates wrote, in a company-wide memo, [PDF] that “the Internet is the most important single development to come along since the IBM PC was introduced in 1981,” Microsoft’s Web-related steps have often been missteps. And even though it has spent a fortune in developing and promoting Bing, its search engine, the outcome seems uncertain at best.

Google seems to have been similarly blindsided by social networks. Google Groups, Google Buzz, Google Wave—the list of social missteps by the search giant is as embarrassing as it is long. And yet, just as Microsoft can’t ignore the Web and has to risk failure again and again, so too with Google and the social Web. And thus, Google+. It’s Google’s latest attempt to create some compelling online social tools and wrap them together in a service that might blunt the Facebook juggernaut.

My guest today is Danny Sullivan. His website, Search Engine Land, is “must reading” when it comes to social networks and search engines, which he’s been reporting on, one way or another, since 1995. He was here on the show in May, when the topic was Google +1, and now he’s here for Google+, which I guess is a small step backward for Google in nomenclature but might be a big step forward for Google in its competition with Facebook.

Danny, welcome back to the podcast.

Danny Sullivan: Thank you for having me.

Steven Cherry: Let’s start by walking through Google+ a little bit. The heart of Facebook, I guess, is the friend relationship, so the heart of Google+ might be something called Circles—maybe we should start there.

Danny Sullivan: So circles are a metaphor that Google’s using to try and allow people to have more control over their friends. The idea is that you can drag your friends from a list into one of several circles or create circles based on the kind of material or information or relationship you have with them. So you can have a friend circle, you can have a circle that is just for family, you could have a work circle, you could have a circle of people that are in a club for example. And then if you want to share, say, a photo or some news or some information, you don’t necessarily have to share it with the entire world, you can just share it with your particular circle that you think should get that information. Now, it’s sort of one of the big things they seem to be hanging their hats on in this fight with Facebook. There’s the perception that Facebook does not give you much control, Facebook wants you to share everything with everybody in the entire world, and so they’re hoping that this perhaps will resonate with people. The reality is that Facebook does have some controls, they have both things that are called “Facebook friend lists” and also “Facebook groups,” and so you can kind of create your own circles within Facebook if you wanted to as well, but Google certainly kind of has a better name I think to the concept, and some people seem to really resonate with the idea of the sort of drag-and-drop-your-friends type of approach.

Steven Cherry: So there’s sort of an analogue to your Facebook Wall too, and I guess that would be what it calls Sparks. Is that a fair comparison?

Danny Sullivan: No, Sparks is actually something that’s a bit different. The analogue to your Facebook Wall is what’s called the “stream,” and that’s where you go in and you can see everything that’s sort of happening and what people are putting out there, or you’re posting stuff yourself; actually, that’s more of an analogue to your Facebook news feed. I’m not certain whether or not you actually have an analogue to your Wall, which is just stuff that you’ve posted on yourself. It’s probably if somebody goes and looks at your profile—that would be the closest approximation they have. Sparks is something that’s designed to give you an idea of what you might want to talk about. You can go over there and do a search or click through some of the topics, and Google will suggest articles that they think are particularly share-able, you know, crazy stories or interesting stories that you may want to share with others. And it seems almost like a backup plan that they’ve created in case they had a group of people that wasn’t able to come up with anything interesting to share to each other.

Steven Cherry: Very good. You know, a lot of this seems to be more catching up with Facebook than leapfrogging it, but there’s one area where Google might be jumping ahead, and that has to do with the mobile Internet, which you would expect, given Google’s leading role in Android. So, what’s the mobile connection here?

Danny Sullivan: Well, one thing is that it’s very compelling so far if you’re using the Android application. You know you can get on, you can leave your comments, you can share the information as you want to. There’s also a way that you can, if you’re using an Android phone, have it do what’s called an “instant upload,” so that if you’ve taken any kind of a picture, that picture will automatically be sent off to your place online that you have within Google+. And so the idea is that you no longer have to have these pictures being isolated or forgotten or stuck on your phone if you haven’t gotten around to plugging it in and downloading it, that sort of thing.

Steven Cherry: And there’s also something called Huddle…

Danny Sullivan: Yep. That’s a way of doing what’s called a—doing kind of a group text chat that can happen out on your phone. You can have, I think it may be up to six people and invite them in and they can all start just sort of talking to each other on your phone.

Steven Cherry: And back on the desktop, Google envisions a kind of group video chats.

Danny Sullivan: Yup. Huddle’s sort of your backup to what seems to be their other big huge thing that they do, this thing called Hangouts. And that allows you to come in and say, “Hey, I’m hanging out,” and then your friends will see that, and up to 9 of them—so there’s 10 in all—can all be talking and doing this video chat. And it’s very clever, and as you talk, it detects who’s talking, and it automatically changes the main picture so you see that person. And so Google is hoping that this might be a new approach to get people to want to share and talk with each other through video chat. They had a whole metaphor that they talked to me about: the idea that you wouldn’t just interrupt somebody by banging on their door and say, “Hey, do you want to come out and talk,” but if you saw them sitting outside, then you kind of got a signal that maybe they do want to talk, and if you already saw them sitting outside talking to somebody else, you might want to come over and join in the conversation. And so they’re hoping that Hangout will be a way that you kind of say, “Hey, I’m hanging out—come on over and talk to me. I’m ready to do it; I washed my hair and brushed my teeth and think I’m looking OK to be on TV, so let’s have this conversation.”

Steven Cherry: Danny, last time you were on the show, we were talking about the Google +1 button, and it seems to make a bit more sense now in light of Google+, and let me just sort of describe what I mean. Google has started to incorporate social networking such as personal recommendations in its search results, and now in effect search results are going to infuse your Google+ page, and generally speaking it seems like if Google can really fuse its knowledge of the Web and social networking together, it might really have something.

Danny Sullivan: Oh, certainly, it might very well have that indeed, although interestingly, right now the +1 activity is completely separate from the Google+ activity. So you can write a post, share it with your friends on Google+; there’s a Google +1 button that you can use to indicate that you like that; but there’s no way for people within that system to then discover that. It doesn’t share it out to other people, nor if you’re seeing something out on the Web and you +1 it, does that flow back in to share it with your friends, either. That might come, but right now it is kind of a mess, it’s almost as though Facebook had rolled out Facebook “like” buttons and had no connectivity to them. Now it seems likely that it will come, and that’s really important because that was the big flaw that Google had, is that if you release these buttons all over the Web to collect these sort of social signals which may help you with search, that’s wonderful—but you have to give people a reason to push them. And right now, Google’s only reason for people to push them was that they had the promise that maybe their search results would get better. Now it may be that in the near future, the promise of pushing them is you’ll be able to share stuff with your friends in your circles that you know and like and want to know about this information.

Steven Cherry: Or at least it would influence your stream and your Sparks and all of that.

Danny Sullivan: It can do that too, sure.

Steven Cherry: Very good. So, what’s your first impression, then, of where this new Google+ business puts Google versus Facebook?

Danny Sullivan: It gives it a much more solid core to push against Facebook, it’s a good footing. So far, they don’t appear to have made any solid missteps. And so for me, it’s very much giving them kind of the opportunity to perhaps “play” Bing in the way that Bing plays to Google. And what I mean by that is that Microsoft for years had wanted to have a search engine, and it just really had gone nowhere and kept losing market share, and then they finally rebranded, released Bing with some new technology and some improvements, and they built a credible opponent. It didn’t kill Google in any way, it still has not been something that’s really made that much of a dent against Google, but it’s captured some share and it’s captured some mind share. I think Google now has a product that may give it the chance to capture some mind share initially and perhaps some of the market share down the line. But I don’t know that there’s enough there that’s really going to suddenly cause people to flock away from Facebook and all their habits over there and all their friends that they have over there to then start using this.

Steven Cherry: And I guess it’s a long haul. Google sent around a limited number of invitations to people on Wednesday, and by Thursday morning it wasn’t accepting new people because it already had enough, yet these services or projects don’t really do any good until you have a critical mass of friends. So I guess we have to wait until that happens.

Danny Sullivan: Yeah and what’s interesting right now is that a lot of people are very excited, and it’s interesting, my initial review was fairly negative. I said like what I just told you: They had a nice core, I thought it was crazy that they didn’t have the plus buttons hooked up, I thought the name was absolutely ridiculous. It’s name is Google+, with the plus symbol actually directly against Google, so it’s difficult to know how you write it, if you put punctuation after it; it’s odd, you don’t really have a good name to say what it is that you did when you’re doing stuff out there. But maybe they’ll overcome all that sort of stuff, but it just felt like there was a lot more that needed to happen. And while they did open up the invitations for a limited amount and there was a lot of excitement, the conversations right now that I’m seeing are almost entirely about Google+, so…and that’s very similar to what happened when Google Buzz launched initially. Everybody got very excited about it in sort of the tech-sphere and the people that were invited in. The real test will be what happens in a month from now. Will a bigger group of people be in here? Will, if you will, “ordinary” people be able to use this? And will they make the switch over from Facebook? If they’ve been doing all their stuff there, it is somewhat painful to have to go in here and re-create all of your friend connections. Now one plus to that is if you felt like you messed up the first time with Facebook, you accepted everybody—something I had done—it’s kind of like a fresh start. But it’s still work.

Steven Cherry: Very good. Well, I guess we’ll have to have you back in a month or two and see how things stand.

Danny Sullivan: We’ll be friends on Google Plus—we’ll see.

Steven Cherry: Very good, perfect. Thanks so much for your time, Danny.

Danny Sullivan: You’re welcome, and take care.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with search engine guru Danny Sullivan about how whether in Google Plus, Google has finally crawled its way into the social Web. For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded 30 June 2011.
Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli
Follow us on Twitter  @spectrumpodcast

NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum's audio programming is the audio version.

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