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Why Facebook Likes Google+

Date posted: October 26, 2011

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As Google+ rolls out enhancements to its social networking tools, industry leader Facebook refines its own offerings. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK considers whether the “newcomer” can take on an 800-million-strong network.

You’ve probably been told you’re one in a million. I’m delighted to inform you that, as of Monday morning, you are one in 4,567,640. That’s how many South Africans had registered to use Facebook by then. Or one in 800-million – the global Facebook tally.

Those are astonishing numbers, especially when you consider that half of all users log on at least once a day.

One would think, then, that all other wannabe social media giants would have been sent scurrying back into their 20th Century business models, never again to darken the doorstep of digital greatness.

But when you’re Google, you can boast even bigger numbers. Such as 1-billion people using its site for searching. That doesn’t give them the automatic right to success in social networking, but it gives them a key to the gate.

They tried to gatecrash the party in May 2009 with something called Google Wave. It promised to combine e-mail, chat, social networking, live collaboration and project management, among many other things, in one place on the Web.

I’ve got a neighbor who once had the same approach to extensions to his home. It now has turrets, domes and double-storey backyard cottages wherever the space allowed. He’s been trying to sell it for years, but no one will touch his monstrosity. No matter how cool he believes it is.

Google had the luxury of being able to shut their version down.

Then they launched Google Buzz in May 2010. It let you see all your social networks in one place. And to let everyone else see who you’ve been e-mailing, instant messaging, tweeting or updating. It was like building a bathroom with glass walls. I know some people like that kind of thing, but perhaps not enough of them to make money for Google. They announced last week they’re shutting it down.

Their next venture into social construction came in July 2011, when Google+ had a housewarming party for invited users. Very exclusive. Only 10-million of their closest friends. It looked uncannily like Facebook, but instead of Status Updates, it invited you to “Share what’s new”. Instead of declaring your “Like” for a posting, you gave it a “+1”.

But it also had something not invented by Facebook, namely Circles. You get to add anyone on Google+ to any Circle you choose to create, and you can decide which circles get to see what material you post on the site. Exactly what people had been begging Facebook to do for years.

And then something amazing happened: within a few days, Facebook had added an option to specify which Lists of friends could see what on your profile.

It was like watching a price war. They blissfully ignore the customer’s concerns until the competition comes along and shows it cares. And you suddenly become a caring, not-so-sharing social network. What’s not to Like?

Google+ is now open to all, but so far it’s not getting the number of +1s it would like (or Like), or that convinces the market it can compete with Facebook. The difference, this time, is that Google is treating it like an open-plan house, waiting for residents to get a feel for it before deciding what else will fit where, how and when. Business pages, for example, are on the agenda, as is integration with Google Apps – the tools that give Google a business edge over other social offerings.

It will need more than that to match up to Facebook, but we tend to forget that the vast Facebook offering has been built up over seven years. Back in the day, it was a seedy Boston man-cave for Mark Zuckerberg and his buddies to jeer at the girls who’d stood them up.

The latest data from web site trackers Hitwise shows that, in mid-October, Facebook attracted 9.71% of all web traffic in the USA. Google and its two biggest non-search properties, YouTube and Gmail, made up 11.93% of traffic.

That’s a neat little +2 for the notion that this game is not yet over.

* Arthur Goldstuck heads up the World Wide Worx (www.worldwideworx.com) market research organisation and is editor-in-chief of Gadget. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee. Reprinted from Gadget.