Google +1 Won’t Beat Facebook’s Like Button

Google +1 is no Facebook conqueror, but it could be made into an attractive program for advertisers, says Clint Boulton

Google on 30 March launched its long-awaited, supposed Facebook-flaming +1 button to the world as an experimental feature, with a slow rollout coming as the search engine tunes and tweaks the feature.

+1 is best thought of as simply Google’s version of Facebook’s Like button, the social network’s recommendation engine. Users will click the +1 next to each search result or ad on, and +1s will start appearing next to each selected search or ad result in subsequent searches.

Don’t think of +1 as a bid to beat Facebook so much as a way for Google to emulate Facebook’s passion for forging digital ads paired with social recommendations, which is a super smart move by Google, albeit with some pitfalls.

Excluding Facebook

The good news is the service is easy. Users literally just click the +1 when they like a search result for a car, restaurant or ads to recommend these products to users. No mess, no fuss.

The bad news is that users who want to generate +1s need a Google Profile, the ad-hoc social graph builder Google set up two years ago to begin applying social services to its products.

This requires Google users, who are accustomed to coming to to search and flit away, to leave more information about themselves, similar to the way they already do on Facebook. Profiles users enter their name, work info if they prefer, interests and links to other websites.

Profiles is how Google’s Social Search links users to their friends, surfacing content created or shared by Google’s linked Gmail and Chat users, as well as users from Twitter or Quora.

“It’s a continuation of search becoming more personalised and relevant to you,” Altimeter Group founder Charlene Li told eWEEK. “The biggest problem is that Google excludes the biggest social network, Facebook, so you’re limited to who is in your Google address book/Chat list and Twitter.”

Google Profiles not up to the job

The problem is that there is absolutely no indication that enough people are using Profiles the way they feed content to and suck content from Facebook.

Google doesn’t disclose the number of Profile users it has, but even if it is in the tens of millions, it’s still just a fraction of its massive, unparalleled search base of 1 billion users. How can Google get more searchers setting up Profiles to engage in sharing via +1?

As IDC analyst Hadley Reynolds told eWEEK, Google continually runs up against a chicken and egg problem every time it tries another socially driven product or feature.

The value to users of social features like +1 comes from being able to see what friends have thought about things, but to leverage that value of friends’ “likes,” Google needs to have a critical mass of people already in its network, which it largely lacks today, Reynolds explained.

The fact is that most people want to maintain their groups of friends on one network, and that tends to be Facebook.

“Since Google doesn’t ‘own’ the dominant social network, it needs to get people to opt in to a Google-run version of one (in this case, the Google Profiles),” Reynolds said. “People may wonder why they would bother to go through the signup process and maintain settings and so forth on another system only to be able to get a probably minor enhancement to their search experience.”

Following the money trail

Google didn’t throw out this “me too” feature as an altruistic feature. It’s following Facebook’s money trail, as Likes helped the company earn $1.86 billion (£1.14bn) in ads last year.

Google has said in early testing that the +1 recommendations boosted the rates at which people clicked on the ads. As Search Engine Land noted, Google owns paid search advertising so the +1 annotations have the potential to boost AdWords campaigns.

Moreover, Google will soon extend the +1 button to external websites, just as Facebook did with the Like button.

It’s unclear what financial return Google will get by combining the web’s biggest third-party ad network — AdSense — with recommendations.

If the tens of millions of Profiles users are generating buttons for other Profiles users to click on, Google stands to make some money. Google might not have the social network, but it certainly has the ad networks to support whatever it does in search.

Count IDC’s Reynolds as a believer in Google’s ability to make money from +1.

“I do think the commercial value of +1 is significant, and it could be made into an attractive program for advertisers, an area where Google has an opportunity to potentially out-innovate Facebook,” Reynolds said.

“However, they have to solve their social chicken and egg problem in order to have +1 make a difference.”

That means somehow, some way, getting more users to join Google Profiles to start sharing via +1. That’s a challenge, since most people go to Google to search for information and go to Facebook to share information. GigaOm offers the best analysis of this dichotomy.