I believe I've cracked the code that Google executives use when they're describing Google+'s future. If I'm right, Google's strategy has big implications for brands.
Google+ is now a Facebook knockoff. Individuals and brands do the same things on both: share photos and videos, post links and text updates, play games, chat on text, voice, or video.
Google executives say Google+ is much more than a Facebook knockoff. But they don't say exactly what Google+ is; they just wave their hands about Google+ being the next generation of Google. They say that Google+ actually isn't much like Facebook at all, and when it matures a bit, we'll see that.
For example, Vic Gundotra, senior vice president for social business, told Tech N' Marketing's Hillel Fuld recently:
What most people don’t realize is that Google+ is the next generation of Google! What we measure if you are a Google+ user, is how often do you come back to Google? Are you using the new search capability that is optimized for Google+ users? Are you using Android Market where you can +1 an app and let your friends know you like that app? Are you using Circles in Gmail? And are you using the new Google experience that we are building and is far more personalized? THAT is our strategy, the new Google!
We've heard that kind of talk from Google executives before. But what does it mean?
Here's what I think is going on:
Google is linking all of its services together into one big thing. Instead of separate video, email, documents, maps, and so on, these will all be one big service, with YouTube, Gmail, Google Docs, Google Maps, etc., as components of the larger whole.
Google's vision with Google+ resembles the way Microsoft Exchange and Outlook comprise a calendar, email, and task manager, but they're all pieces of one big thing.
What does this mean for brands? If you're a brand with a page on Google+, and a consumer follows your page, then several things might happen: Your email to that consumer might be highlighted in Gmail, or your content on YouTube might appear in that consumer's recommended videos.
I don't know how it would work on Maps; maybe if you're a retail chain, your locations would be highlighted in Maps search. Or try this: Let's say a consumer follows Peets Coffee & Tea's brand page on Google+, but not Starbucks. Some time later, the consumer visits a city away from home, and searches Google Maps for "coffee." That consumer might see nearby locations for Peets highlighted over Starbucks.
(Or that might happen if Peets actually had a Google+ page, which it does not seem to. That's the vulnerability in this scenario; Google+ still has a long way to go to mature.)
Now imagine the consumer carries an Android phone, and she uses it to check in on Google+ when she visits retail stores. She visits Penney's a lot. Later, when she needs to buy clothes for the kids, she searches Google for information, and she sees ads for Penney's over other retailers.
In this model, Google+ is not just a Facebook clone. The portion of Google that we now think of as "Google+" -- the part that is, indeed, a lot like Facebook -- is just one feature of the big, sprawling, unified suite of integrated Internet services that will be the future Google.
But what about reports that nobody uses Google+, that it's a "virtual ghost town?" Researchers at comScore caused a stir when they reported that the average user spends three minutes a month on Google+. This report simply doesn't match what's apparent to anyone who spends time on Google. See for yourself: Look at brands like H&M, Ford, Pepsi, and Cadbury UK.
Compete Plus is more realistic, with a study showing impressive growth in the seven months of 2011 after Google+ launched.
This subject came up during our weekly chat Friday. Our special guest was Mike Elgan, a Google+ champion (in both senses of the word -- he evangelizes Google+ and he's great at using it).
As Mike says: The time to get on Google+ is now, because the service is still growing. It has a lot of early adopters on it -- technology enthusiasts willing to jump on any new thing. They're hungry for content. Provide it now, before the service matures like Facebook and Twitter did and you get lost in the noise.
Says Mike, "Because few brands are really making an effort, the playing field is wide open for those that do. The current state of Google+ is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But you've got to engage, be original and be creative. Just about any company that does that will be massively rewarded."
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Google+: The Liveliest 'Virtual Ghost Town' on the Internet
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— Mitch Wagner , Editor in Chief, The CMO Site