What is Google Plus?

Numerous conversations have arisen around the direction Google's social network is heading and how this compares to our expectations of where it should be. Is this current questioning of the status quo simply a healthy debate or is it indicative that key engagers are, perhaps, losing faith in the service?

What is Google Plus?So, what is Google+?

To play devil's advocate let's consider:

There is the possibility that we are all over-analysing the situation and, as is common with a relatively new social service, are attempting to ascribe to it a meaning that fits our notion of what we think it "should be" rather than what it actually is.

As I have said elsewhere, we have a problem where Plus is both an all-encompassing social layer and a social networking component and confusion arises because they share the same name.

But, what if there is no predetermined plan for the networking component? No yellow brick road leading us to the magical social Emerald City.

What if the social network is just a reactionary response to a company realising that it was becoming irrelevant in the social space and being left behind by others (e.g. Facebook) who could far better identify a user's interests and behaviour due to holding their social graph.

What if the social networking component is just the unfortunate byproduct of the overall goal to establish such a social graph; a necessary evil and the easiest way to get us to populate this graph for them. Something to be tolerated and merely a means of collecting data, collecting our relationships and letting us advertise our interests.

The discussion centres around the social networking component as though it is a standalone entity rather than as a tool in establishing context and connections.

Need

Did Google need a "social network"? No, but it was the quickest way to achieve its goal: a fleshed out social and interest graph which better enables the company to target us with relevant advertisements in the hope of increasing the response to those ads and, therefore, revenues.

What Google does need is our data. The creation of the single privacy policy to enable data sharing between services and the gleaning of aspects of existing social graphs could probably have provided a wealth of information but it would have been too little too late and the smart advertising money would have gone elsewhere. Google needed a way to populate their own graph as quickly as possible.

After previous failures in the social space it would probably have been preferable to stay out of the arena but the current nature of the social web dictated that a self operated social network was the only way to meet the needs of the company. Having somewhere shiny and new to play is a bonus for us, the users, but a burden for Google.

What if brand pages are not an altruistic way for us to engage with companies but merely a mechanism for us to express our interest so that Adwords campaigns are more effective?

Keeping it simple

It is widely recognised that the content most likely to be reshared or engaged with is visual in nature. Google has seen this for itself with YouTube and it is grossly apparent with the runaway success of Instagram and Pinterest.

From the site redesign and new look iOS application it is evident that there has been a fundamental shift in emphasis towards the visual in an attempt to garner what Max Huijgen refers to as the "lowest possible engagement"; a Like here or a +1 there - a quick and simple means for Google to join the dots.

There has been a move by users to creating more visual content as a way to increase engagement so is Google now doing the same thing on a network level even if that engagement is of the lowest common denominator?

The perceived war on words is little more than an attempt to maximise the amount of engagement in as short a time as possible as Google recognises that we are time constrained.

As Alexander Becker wrote, +1s and simple comments are "enough to build the interest graph" - all we need to do to express an interest is apply positive sentiment to an item (the +1) or a short comment to imply that interest based on interaction. The longer the post the more effort is required to process it and respond and this is possibly not in the interests of the service provider. Building the graph appears to be more about quantity (joining as many dots as possible) not quality (the depth of engagement).

If we are in any way engaged on Plus, even if that is the lowest possible engagement, then we are more likely to be clicking +1 buttons across the "normal web" thus fleshing out our interests graphs further.

In this context the reported average of 3 minutes of user engagement per month is a far lesser concern for Google as we can hit a reasonable number of +1s in a short space of time.

 

Disclaimer

This post started as a comment to a thread on Google+ and is intended as a discussion point. It is playing devil's advocate so should be taken with a pinch of salt but it is also a warning that, as users, we should not be trying to judge a service based only on our own expectations.

That said, while we must not demand ever more complex functionality which could alienate the new user, perhaps Google has an obligation to not over simplify the service. It is, after all, in Google's own interest to provide a service people will want to use and, by doing so, populate the social graphs.

Discuss this post over at Google+

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