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Google+’s “ghost town” could be marketers’ next bustling metropolis

5 min read

Marketing Strategy

(Brad Wang/Getty)

The infamous remark from New York Times columnist Claire Cain Miller, that Google’s much maligned social network is like a “ghost town,” was always going to rile the Google+ brigade. But their disapproval seemed to miss the crux of Miller’s piece, which is that it doesn’t matter whether Google+ is a ghost town or a bustling metropolis; what matters is its increasing function as the one account that ties all of Google’s services, and therefore users, together.

“Some analysts even say that Google understands more about people’s social activity than Facebook does,” Miller writes, going onto point out that “before Google released Plus, the company might not have known that you were the same person when you searched, watched videos and used maps. With a single Plus account, the company can build a database of your affinities.”

It is a theme that is emerging more and more among commenters within the digital marketing community; that Google+ is becoming the linchpin of user interconnectivity across all of Google’s services. When one of these services is Google Search, it’s not difficult to see the potential Google+ could hold as a digital marketing platform, regardless of its virtues (or lack of) as a social network.

A database of affinity

A 2014 report by Forrester shows Google+’s userbase and, more crucially, its ability to generate brand engagement, as second only to Facebook but double to that found on Twitter. Forrester’s report surveyed 60,000 U.S. adults, of whom 22% said they used Google+ every month, around the same number who said they used Twitter every month.

Across all of its services, Google is building up an ever more detailed picture of its userbase; something Nate Elliot at Forrester calls a database of affinity. By collecting data on the 800 million YouTube videos its users are watching, the social connections of 500 million Gmail users and the billions of blog posts and comments in its search index, Elliot contests that Google is inevitably going to beat Facebook on this front, with the potential to bring “untold rigor, discipline, and success to brand advertising.”

The prize couldn’t be bigger and by connecting more and more of its services through its user’s Google+ accounts, Google has nailed its colors to the mast. Plus may not have transformed the world of social networking, but it will undoubtedly come to sit at the core of Google’s marketing and advertising services in the coming years.

Made for marketing

Critics of Google+ have always made the mistake of comparing it to Facebook in terms of its comparative failure as a social network. To do this is, according to its proponents anyway, is to misunderstand the nature of the “social” in its social network. Google+ seems to play more on its ability to connect strangers with similar interests, expertise or problems through hangouts and search, rather than unite friends and relatives with existing relationships in the real world. In this capacity the network has already maneuvered itself to become a far more effective content marketing platform than Facebook.

The second point many critics underplay is Google’s sheer size and influence over the Web, most notably search (66.9% of U.S. search in 2013). The draw of Google+ to marketers has never been based on its appeal as a social network but on its ability to disseminate content across platforms and enhance organic search results, through rich snippets, authorship and the preferential placement of Google Plus content.

Google’s power lies in its size. Despite the controversial decision recently to require Google+ membership to comment on YouTube videos, there has been no exodus. Facebook’s social network has been built from the ground up, Google+ now has the advantage of being able to fall back on the ubiquity of Google’s established online services. Could it be that Google is just too big to fail?

Antitrust concerns

This premise has raised perennial concerns amongst many of antitrust from Google, despite a recent Federal Trade Commission report finding no evidence of this.

Professor Tim Wu of Columbia Law School has questioned the ethics and legal basis of Google’s tying of its services to Plus, comparing the policy to Microsoft’s bundling Internet Explorer with its Windows operating system to see off the threat from its rival browser, Netscape.

“If you want Google search, they’re going to shove Google Plus at you pretty hard, so the consumer’s forced to take the product they don’t want to get the product they want,” he says. “That raises big questions under antitrust law.”

The decision by Google CEO Larry Page to tie company bonuses to the success of Google+ is further evidence that the company is putting it’s all behind its social network and that the integration of services under the umbrella of a single Google+ account will, bar legal intervention, continue unabated. 

Jon Mowat is a former BBC documentary filmmaker and MD of Bristol video production and marketing company, Hurricane Media.