Remember the buzz about Buzz? And whatever happened to Wave? Google's product launches in the social space have been anything but smooth in recent memory.
But last week's announcement of Google +1 could very well be the end of that pattern -- provided both Google and the marketing community do their part.
A few blemishes on Google's record have nonetheless ushered in the requisite boos and catcalls from the peanut gallery, such as:
- "It's the same as the Facebook Like button, except that it's five years too late."
- "These +1's don't have much relevance as social cues, because it's not just your friends pulled into the social circle."
- "People aren't going to bother +1'ing any content."
- "It's going to be way too easy to game the system to generate +1s."
While the answers to these criticisms will play out over a long period of time, search marketers should begin to look beyond them.
This begins with an evolving perspective of the elusive social graph -- the universal map of the connections of everyone belonging to social networks on the Internet. We're beginning to see that the scope of social graphs also depends on the scalability of content within these networks:
In other words, a broad social graph is comprised of many users generating and interacting with a large amount of content. It's the network effect in action: the more people and content rolled in, the more valuable the network becomes.
In a closed system like Facebook, the limits on both are apparent: the content created on Facebook is still a fraction of what's created in other channels (and indexed by Google). And even though 500 million+ users is an impressive number, it just doesn't hold up to the number of people worldwide using Google search and other products on the platform.
To date, the notion of "social search" has merely been comprised of layers of social data woven into search results. With Google +1, social cues will now become a core ingredient of the search experience, inching closer to the next generation of consumer data.
"(Google) wants to own a primary source of data, not rely on secondary sources," notes A.J. Kohn. "Particularly as Facebook encroaches on search and hides more web content from Google."
And that's the bottom line: even if the Google +1 button lacks the history, the familiarity and the functionality of the Facebook Like button, even with slow adoption it won't be long before Google's social graph data exceeds what Facebook is sitting on. Add that to a vastly superior interface for advertisers, and it's a winning proposition.
It's early; there aren't too many tactics or how-tos to speak of. But for all of this to eventually make a difference to marketers, there is still plenty that Google needs to do:
1. Get That +1 Button Into the Mainstream, ASAP!
Google announced the availability of this button on the Webmaster Central Blog on March 28, fully two days ahead of the +1 launch. Presumably this was to give publishers a chance to get the jump on things, but shortly after Google issued a statement indicating "we're still working things out and aren't quite ready for this to be publicly available just yet."
Without a content-side measure to drive engagement in social search, users are left to +1 links either on memory alone, or by taking the trouble to click "back" in their browsers and flag up the link that sent them to whatever they liked.
Talk about a huge pair of bottlenecks. The sooner Google gets out of its own way, the better off we'll all be.
2. Begin Addressing the Spam Issue
It's on everyone's minds -- how people will be able to game the system.
In principle, this is similar to spam problems of the past: Google squashed paid links in 2007 and they can do it again. They have already publicly confirmed that +1 is currently not a factor in quality score, but marketers with big budgets will need confidence that strategies built around Google +1 will operate in a stable environment.
3. Put More Effort Into Promoting Google Profiles
Across the worldwide Google audience, what percentage of these people have actually built and maintained their Google Profiles? It's a small share, and these folks are the only ones who presently are able to actively "plus-one" the content. There's still a lot of education needed.
Here's some homework for search marketers, to make sure we get the most out of Google +1:
1. Poke Holes and Hammer Google With Feedback
Are A/B tests showing a difference in key metrics among +1 ads, compared to the control? Will +1 activity ever show up in Google Analytics? How will +1 ads with third party ad servers?
2. Get Ready for an Eventual Rollout of +1 on the Google Display Network
We know that display advertising is an important catalyst for most search programs.
Once a more mature +1 technology reaches users beyond the search results -- and in their actual browsing environments -- the first movers' advantages will be very apparent. And the forthcoming GDN rollout is hardly far-fetched, given Google's tireless pursuit of greater market share in the display arena.
3. Ignore Speculation About +1's Effect on Ranking and Quality Score Algorithms
The bottom line is, no one (possibly not even Google's engineers) really knows how +1-enabled search behavior is going to play out. Eventually, it makes sense that these social cues may earn some weight in Google's algorithms; anything that increases click-through rate (CTR) is a prime candidate in this regard.
We know that other ad extensions have been shown to drive higher CTR (sitelinks and seller ratings come to mind). And with that higher CTR will come more marketing dollars, and thus more data for Google to troubleshoot the aforementioned challenges: promoting adoption, refining its community, battling spam, and so on.
With a swift ironing of all the kinks, Google +1 could prove a boon to search marketing.