Only launched a short time ago, already there is a proliferation of articles assessing the viability, usability, future, and impact of Google+. Almost all of these articles are focused on what it means to the user and the potential ramifications in the social sphere. But, I’ve yet to read about what I consider to be the dominant purpose behind G+.
Google has built an empire (see latest earnings report) on a simple theory: people are the best decision engines on earth. People interact with the world, determine opinions, and share. The original algorithm explored both the expertise of the website (keywords, meta tags, etc…) and the weighted endorsement of that expertise (link and anchor text). This created highly accurate results based on the ready availability of public data. Today, the theory behind the formula remains, but the world’s data has changed. While there is exponentially more data available than when Google launched, some of the best data for endorsing the quality of information either lies hidden behind a wall (Facebook, LinkedIn, or even Flipboard) or can be quickly cut off (a la the recent Twitter feud).
Data from the social sphere represents precisely the core information that any search engine desperately needs. Each like, reference, fan, re-tweet, or mention represents another highly valuable piece to the search puzzle. A like is inherently a positive “vote.” But unlike traditional search data (text, links, and tags), this data is public at the discretion of users and the companies that gather it. For a company that is built on accurately measuring human sentiment towards information, this poses a serious threat.
But this is only half the story. Social sphere data offers hope for what traditional search data never could: personalized search. Sure, Google has continued to make search more personal by incorporating location (either through keywords or user location) and browser history, but that is far cry from actual personalization.
The social sphere creates two fundamentally new types of data than were previously available (at least as readily and as cheaply available). The first is personalized network data. This data is created by analyzing how much influence my “voting” has on others by topic. This is measured not only by my social reach (sheer number of people influenced), but also by the interaction between the topic and the person. The second type of data is profile data. This is generated by analyzing the connection between the personal information entered by the user and the user’s habits.
Imagine the power of a search engine that could index results tailored to the individual based on the music tastes, favorite blog posts, travel destinations, time/frequency of postings (and on and on), not only of the individual, but of those who she influences and is influenced by? That scenario is not a distant dream, but instead very reachable based on today’s social sphere data. No wonder companies like Klout (which measures social influence) continue to experiment with personalized search, offers, and influencing opportunities.
So where does that leave Google? Eric Schmidt famously acknowledged Google’s social stumble, calling it a “failure of leadership,” while going on to explain that he was just too “busy” to see the importance of social networks. Despite it’s excellent earnings results and recent change in leadership, even vision and cash cannot erase a fundamental truth: Google will need social data to stay relevant. The challenge is access. Google needs Twitter and Groupon and Facebook and….they don’t need Google. In fact, they don’t even like (pun intended) Google for obvious reasons. Thank God it snagged YouTube while the getting was good.
Enter Google+, stage left. The way it’s structured with Circles, Sparks, and Hangouts provides (almost) everything Google needs. Like an old-fashioned phone poll, G+ could provide Google with an extremely in-depth representation of the social sphere, without the cost, headache, or risk of high-level partnerships with the most dominant social sphere companies. G+ is one part Twitter, one part LinkedIn, and one part Facebook for a reason. One could call it TwitterBookInstein. But, I don’t believe the ultimate purpose behind the functionality to be optimal user-attraction or functionality, but instead data collection; not in a nefarious way, but instead in a battle for long-term survival and hopefully continued dominance.
Now does it make sense why Google largely considers Facebook as it’s main rival? Who else could be better positioned to launch the mother of all personal search engines?
Personally, I look forward to the day when I mention that I’ve got a sinus infection and instantly have the ability to be presented with my network’s most trusted doctors, websites about my ailment, as well as the nearest location I can purchase some meds. Who will make it happen? Will it be Google? Perhaps Facebook? Or Apple (Jobs is watching)? Or some company yet to surface? I guess time, money, dealmaking, and users will decide.