Google's latest attempt to infuse its search engine with social networking elements appears underwhelming and its success is questionable, as the company struggles to respond to the increasingly serious threat posed by the Facebook and Microsoft search tandem, according to industry experts.
Called "+1" and unveiled on Wednesday, Google's most recent social search feature seems weak in several areas, including a potentially confusing user experience, strong and established competition and a weak social graph anchor, the analysts said.
From a public perception standpoint, the +1 feature looks closely modeled after Facebook's ubiquitous and popular Like button, making Google appear to be a follower and not an innovator in its core market.
"This isn't revolutionary. It's actually fairly evolutionary. It's a 'me-too' move, catching up with what Facebook has done," said analyst Jeremiah Owyang from Altimeter Group. "It's not a huge leap forward for where Google needs to be in the social space."
While Google remains a dominant leader in search usage and advertising, the influence of Facebook, Twitter and other social networking and social media sites is growing quickly in how people find sites and content on the Web. This +1 feature is an attempt to let Google search users recommend results and share that feedback with others.
To its credit, Google has been anticipating this for years. For example, in 2008 it tested a recommendation feature in a limited way, placing "up" and "down" arrows next to search results, so that people could rearrange them and also comment on them, thus giving feedback on Google's ranking for queries. Google has also provided over the years a variety of customization and personalization tools for this same purpose to users signed into Google Accounts.
Results haven't been particularly successful. "Similar efforts [to +1] in the past haven't penetrated to mainstream usage. It's quite possible this will experience the same fate," said industry analyst Greg Sterling from Sterling Market Intelligence.
If Google managed to make +1 work in the way it expects, it could likely be very valuable as a data gathering and analytics tool that Google could use to help its marketers fine-tune their AdWords advertising campaigns, since +1 will also appear next to ads. "Its incorporation into advertising is very interesting," Sterling said.
IDC analyst Hadley Reynolds concurs. "It could be a real advantage for Google to have that data, both to make its search results crisper and to tell advertisers a bit more about the activities of their potential customers," he said. "At the end of the day, it's all about winning and retaining customers in the advertising game."
However, right out of the gate, experts see various potentially weak points in +1. First, people need to sign into their Google Accounts and set up a Google Profile if they don't have one, and upgrade to the latest version if they do.
"Google Profiles aren't well-understood and if people feel that they have yet another social profile they have to manage, it might be a deterrent, if it's too complicated to get started," Reynolds said. "Like any network effect proposition, if you can't get the volume up quickly, the network effect won't be significant and no one will get value out of it."
Asked for comment, a Google spokeswoman contested the notion that people might find the user experience complicated and cumbersome. "It's actually quite simple," she said, adding that the first time someone clicks on a +1 button, a notification pops up prompting them to create a Profile or upgrade it. In the Profile interface, people will see and be able to manage a list of their +1 clicks.
Second, the social graph into which these +1 recommendations would flow seems weak, limited to existing contacts in users' Google contacts, such as Gmail and Reader accounts, and specifically not connected to Facebook and Twitter, analysts said.
"The Achilles heel of this, like previous attempts by Google at social search, is that it's not really tapped into the Facebook [and Twitter] networks," Reynolds said. "So once again, Google is in a situation of having to recreate yet another social graph, and in my view, people don't want to have to continue to create different social graphs for different environments."
In this, Microsoft, through its partnership with Facebook, has a big advantage over Google. Facebook has given Microsoft access to its Like functionality and data for use in the Bing search engine. No such arrangement seems possible between Facebook and Google, considering the companies routinely lock horns and by all accounts have a very adversarial and contentious relationship.
"Bing still has the advantage in this area because it's using the Facebook Like information directly," Reynolds said.
For +1 to work, Google has to radically improve its now weak position in social networking by muscling its way into becoming a gatekeeper of social interactions, and, if that fails, by buying Twitter, according to Adam Bunn, search engine optimization director at search marketing firm Greenlight. "Google can't afford to limp in with this +1 approach, given its track history with failing at social," Bunn said in a statement.
The Google spokeswoman said that the plan is to broaden +1's social graph reach. "We want to start off slowly to make sure people are comfortable with the +1's they see in their search results. We do plan to incorporate other signals over time, such as your connections on sites like Twitter," she wrote.
Third, the +1 buttons are limited to Google search results, which by definition people use as a springboard to Web pages, so in most instances, they won't know if they liked a result until after they've navigated away from it. Also, search result pages, unlike social profiles, are meant to send people on their way and not retain them. "People don't want to be curating search results pages," Sterling said.
The Google spokeswoman said the plan is to eventually let Web publishers put +1 buttons on their sites. However, analysts said that the +1 buttons will face entrenched competition from the widespread adoption of Facebook Like, Twitter Tweet and a wide variety of other similar buttons prevalent all over the Web.
"The Like, Tweet and all the other buttons from social media sites in a way make this +1 button redundant," Sterling said, drawing a parallel with Google Buzz, which hasn't particularly proven to be a game changer among social networks and microblogging sites.
"Beyond the initial privacy confusion and problems, the other big problem with Buzz was that its basic functionality didn't seem new nor different, and as such it didn't enhance anyone's experience. It was a 'me-too' product, and this +1 is essentially a copy of the Facebook Like button," Sterling said.
The Google spokeswoman said that Google believes people will see great value in being able to recommend results right from the results page, as well as from seeing what links their contacts have recommended and the aggregate of +1 counts from other users.
She also said that there are a number of differences between +1 and the Facebook Like button, a key one being the confluence in time between searching for information and seeing recommended sites.
"When you +1 something, you know your friends will find it in search results, but you won't be pushing a notification to everyone when they don't necessarily want the information," she wrote.
How well the +1 feature fares will become clearer in the coming months, as Google broadens its availability and a critical mass of people gets a chance to try it out. But there is no question that the stakes are high for Google, as it strives to secure the social search front of its main business against the Facebook-Microsoft assault, as well as compete for audience against Facebook specifically in social networking.
"Google needed to do something to respond to the initiative Facebook and Microsoft have with Bing's social search," Reynolds said. "Google also is facing this issue of how to maintain its audience leadership in the face of Facebook's growth and the amount of time people spend on Facebook."
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