Is Google a Social Media Company?

Perhaps Google’s stiffest competition in the immediate future isn’t Bing and Yahoo, but rather it’s the likes of Wikipedia, Twitter, and Facebook. Just as we no longer search for the news (24 of the top 25 newspapers have shown record declines in circulation), in the future we will no longer search for products and services; rather they will find us via social media.

Google has made billions by being the masters of the search world. As these new social media players look for potential revenue streams, monetizing search will certainly bubble to the forefront for the executives.

This will occur on two main fronts:

  • Consumers searching for products and services.
  • Companies searching within the millions of conversations and meta data to garner relevant and real-time customer feedback as well as potential leads and sales.

One of the most powerful things about Twitter is the ability for companies to go to and put in relevant brand or product terms to gain insight into what is being said about their product or service. This is one of the main drivers behind why Facebook has been adjusting some of their platform to be more in sync with Twitter. Facebook understands there is “gold” in these conversations.

Speaking of adjustments, Google has made advancements in their search algorithm over the years as well as adjustments to other products. However, for the past few years they haven’t been pushed hard by any major competitor and they haven’t made many major adjustments to their core business.

You can’t blame them. Why fix something that isn’t broken? As a result, they’ve also supplied several free tools that we use in our daily lives. However, search hasn’t advanced as much as it could have if there was a more competitive environment.

Also, people care more about what their friends think than what an algorithm does. That is where social media has a potential advantage on Google in the future. But Google is looking to close that gap, as evidenced by some of their adjustments:

Google Wave: This is Google’s collaboration tool to combat Twitter and Facebook. Some have dubbed it “21st century e-mail.” “This represents a displacement threat for everybody,” said Rob Enderle. “Everybody in this space — Twitter, Facebook and MySpace — is nervous at the moment. If they’re not nervous, then they’re missing the memo. The market hasn’t settled and when it’s not settled, then something like Wave could come in and make headway.”

My take: The biggest hurdle here is that it may be too bleeding-edge for the masses. If they make it easy enough for moms and dads to use, then they have a home run on their hands. Mass adoption by older generations has been one of Facebook’s biggest successes.

Google SearchWiki: In Google’s words, SearchWiki is a way for you to customize search by re-ranking, deleting, adding, and commenting on search results. With just a single click, you can move results you like to the top, or add a new site. You can also write notes attached to a particular site and remove results that you don’t feel belong.

My take: Too much burden placed on the user to supply relevant input that can easily be leveraged by other searches. You also need a Gmail account for this to show up. Also, hardly anyone knows this exists. The beauty of a tool like Facebook Connect is that it easily resolves a problem (people don’t want to have to enter logins/personal information for various sites) with limited effort on the user’s part.

Google Hot Trends: Similar in concept to top trending topics on Twitter, this functionality or box shows up whenever you type in a search term that is being searched by many other users in the past few hours. “Trends is all based on a different kind of tweet. Instead of the 140-character tweet, it’s the 20- to 25-character tweet, the keyword search. And those come in much faster than tweets do. In our view, that’s the highest fidelity information for trending topics,” said R.J. Pittman, director of product management for consumer search properties at Google.

My take: Yahoo had a similar, less robust concept with Yahoo Buzz several years ago. It’s interesting that Google is perceived (whether it is true or false — I’d argue false) by the public as following Twitter with this offering.

Google Sidewiki: In Google’s Words, “Google Sidewiki allows you to contribute helpful information next to any Web page. Google Sidewiki appears as a browser sidebar, where you can read and write entries along the side of the page. Instead of displaying the most recent entries first, we rank Sidewiki entries using an algorithm that promotes the most useful, high-quality entries. It takes into account feedback from you and other users, previous entries made by the same author and many other signals we developed.”

My take: This is a game changer. Other companies have tried to tackle these “layers” on sites, but with Google now in the game, it signals that Google is really getting series about social. Web sites aren’t going to like this loss of control, but it should be a big win for the user if done properly. To make it truly social it should allow the user to highlight or bring to the front specific individuals that they trust.

Look for social media companies to get more search-oriented, and Google to continue to get more social.

Erik Qualman is the author of “Socialnomics,” which has made the Amazon No. 1 Best Seller List.

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