Google: Rethink Your Mission! Part 2: Google+

Forbes

As I indicated in yesterday's article, Google: Rethink Your Mission!, Google launched its new social network tool last week, Google+, while also announcing the retirement of two other initiatives, Google Health and Google PowerMeter, which had failed to get the response that Google had hoped.

Google+ has a number of desirable features:

  • It has an attractive user interface, albeit remarkably similar to Facebook’s.
  • It has the Circles feature which enables users to sort their connections into different groups, although similar to Facebook’s Lists.
  • For users, with a large undifferentiated set of “friends” on Facebook, accumulated over a number of years, it allows users to “begin afresh”.
  • It has the attraction of novelty: it’s the latest new thing.

It is being launched in a large-scale beta version with a limit of 250,000 participants. Participation is by invitation only. Current recipients of invitations are being informed that Google+ is currently closed to newcomers “while some kinks are being ironed out.”

Google is worried about Facebook

Google+ follows a succession of prior Google failures in the social media arena. First Orkut, Then Open Social. Then Wave. Then Buzz.

Undaunted, Google+ has now launched Google+.

Clearly, Google's management is determined to do something about the challenge posed by social media such as Facebook. As I noted in an earlier article, Spam Grandma For Cash, in Larry Page’s first week as CEO, he sent a company-wide memo, tying 25% of every employee’s bonus to Google’s success in social media.

Why is Google worried about Facebook?

Adam Hartung writes in his insightful article, Why Google+ Is A Big Minus For Investors,

Once the web was the world’s largest library, and simultaneously the world’s biggest shopping mall.  In that environment, what everyone needed was to find things.  And Google was the world’s best tool for finding things.… But increasingly the internet is not about just finding things. Today people are using the internet more as a way to network, communicate and cooperatively share information – using sites like Facebook, Linked-in and Twitter.

From the perspective of its mission to “organize the world’s information”, Facebook with its 700 million users represents a major strategic problem for Google. Thus Facebook is organizing a huge chunk of the world’s personal information, thereby eating Google’s lunch.

Google management can also see the alarming charts that Adam Hartung shows in his article. Facebook is thus consuming progressively more of users’ time. And the average minutes per visitor is increasing more rapidly for Facebook than for Google.

A direct challenge to Facebook is risky

But as Hartung points out, a head-on challenge to Facebook could be very expensive and is ultimately unlikely to be successful in displacing Facebook. As fast as Google can come up with nifty new features in Google+, Facebook, as the incumbent network, can simply emulate them, thereby eliminating any incentive for people to leave Facebook and join a new network, particularly since all of their current friends and connections are on Facebook and, at least for now, not on Google+.

Moreover, Google+ is currently very geeky. To bold text you surround that text with asterisks. *Like this* Italicize? Put underscores around the text. Strikeout? Put hyphens around it.

These problems can be easily fixed, but other aspects of geekiness lie deeper.

For the rest of the article, go here.

As Robert Scoble points out in his entertaining blog:

Let’s talk about the big thing. Circles. Now, heavy and passionate users of social media, like myself, really love things like lists and groups. Why? Because we want to spend hundreds of hours making sure that our social graphs are really organized.

Normal people do NOT do this. They just want to friend their 20 real-life friends and 30 family folks and be done with it. Average/normal users want the system just to bring them fun stuff without doing any work.

See, if you put the average Silicon Valley geek in front of a TV and tell him to sit on the couch and watch TV for four hours they won’t know what to do. They will start building databases of their favorite shows, start figuring out how to optimize their DVRs so they can fast-forward through commercials faster, and stuff like that.

Normal/average users? They just want to watch TV and drink beer.

Google+ is for the passionate users of tech. If you just want to sit back and have the system do all the work (which means it’s not perfect, but it’s good enough for most people) then Facebook is gonna be where you stay, especially since your friends are gonna lock you in for quite some time.

Does Google have a blind spot with social?

Mike Elgan writing in ComputerWeek suggests that “Google has a blind spot about the ‘human element’ in usability…. People prefer Facebook to Google’s many socially enabled services because Facebook is a place they can go to be social…Google’s approach to social isn’t fun.”

Put more bluntly, Google may be too serious a company for the social trivia of Facebook. Facebook is all about eavesdropping. It appeals to the nosy neighbor syndrome. Hundreds of millions of people are apparently interested in spending a lot of time finding out what’s going on in other people’s lives.

Is this a world that Google wants to compete in? Does it have to?

A closer look at the Facebook threat

Given Google’s apparent blind spot with social, a closer look at the suggested reasons as to why Facebook is perceived as a strategic threat to Google is warranted. Is Facebook really such a strategic threat? The more specific reasons usually given for the threat are not overwhelming:

  • Google is falling behind in display ads: True, display ads are growing faster on Facebook, where Facebook already has the largest share. But is this a real problem for Google? Google’s strength and revenue comes from search ads, not display ads. In fact, the more that Facebook puts display ads in front of users, the less social and more commercial Facebook is going to feel. Does really Google want to go down that path, when its brand is based on a clean, simple non-intrusive search environment?
  • Facebook will displace websites and email: It is sometimes argued that Facebook will displace the need for a web site or even email by allowing users to do everything on Facebook. This thinking is fanciful at best.
  • Facebook may provide a better web search[1]: It has been argued that Facebook may eventually be able to cobble together the information that it has about users to present better search results than Google. However Google also has vast information about users. It is an open question as to who will exploit the information better. To stay ahead, Google will have to go on innovating. It is not a foregone conclusion that the winner will be Facebook.
  • Users spend more time on Facebook than Google: The argument here is that because users spend more time on Facebook, advertisers will have more opportunities to bombard them with ads. But if users are bombarded with ads when they are trying to converse with friends, the effect is unlikely to be happy. The current advantage of Google is that we spend less time getting to where we want to go. Because we are in a search mode, we are actively looking for something. In the context of a search, we tend to see ads as useful, not intrusive. Does Google want to go down the path of squandering its advantage of a clean and non-intrusive search experience by trying to keep us on their site and bombarding us with display ads? Google’s comparative advantage is in providing quick, simple, effortless, non-intrusive search. No irritations. Why not stick to that?

Overall, the necessity for Google to take on Facebook in direct competition is not obvious.

So why is Google obsessed with Facebook?

Google’s obsession with Facebook goes back to the pesky mission statement that led Google astray with Google Health and Google PowerMeter.  If Google’s goal is to organize the world’s information, then Google’ can easily start imagining that Facebook, by organizing the world’s social information, is a direct competitor and that, as a result, Google has to try to take down Facebook. Trying to take down Facebook by offering something similar to Facebook is like Microsoft taking down iPod by offering Zune. No way.

The reality is that Google isn’t in the business of organizing the world’s information. It is currently essentially in the finding business. It is the world’s premier search engine. It also has an interesting, but so far unprofitable, business providing the Android platform for mobile phones. It has a variety of other activities (g-mail, Google Earth etc) which are also not very profitable. So long as Google thinks it is in the business of organizing the world’s information, it is likely to go on launching unprofitable businesses.

Public relations mission statements

Having a mission statement that is basically public relations pablum can be a problem. The problem is widespread, for example at Bank of America (“Helping set opportunity in motion for our customers, community and the economy”) or at Chevron (“Be the most admired”) or at JPMorgan Chase (“Becoming the best financial services company in the world”).

Such statements are often launched for external consumption but they can end up preventing the management from thinking clearly about real competitive threats and opportunities.  In this way, management double-talk becomes a pervasive fog that bedevils efforts to focus on essential goal for surviving and thriving in the 21st Century: delighting customers.

In Google’s case, its mission to “organize the world’s information” may be leading its management to misunderstand the threats and opportunities posed by the emergence of Facebook.

What should Google do?

In Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant (2005) W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne illustrate the high growth and profits that an organization can generate by creating delighting customers in an uncontested market space, i.e. a "Blue Ocean", rather than by competing head-to-head with other suppliers in the bloody shark-infested waters with known customers in an existing sector.

Instead of choosing to swim with the sharks in head-to-head competition with Facebook, Google could be pursuing a “blue ocean” strategy by competing in a new area where there is little competition.

The key to this approach is to identify a segment of customers whose needs are not being met and generate more value for that segment sooner. Health and energy might have been such opportunities, but Google missed them because it was focused on the producing a thing, rather than delighting the people who would use the thing. The key is to shift from a focus on producing things to a focus on understanding and delighting people.

Thus the deeper problem with Google’s mission statement is not that it is unrealistic (which it is) but rather that it is focused on a thing. It is about “organizing information” rather than being about people for whom the information is being organized and how they would use it and why.

The reason why Google has been wildly successful to date in its core business is that its search engine delights us. It helps us do something we really want to do, many times a day. It does it simply, quickly and elegantly. Great! We love it!

Google needs to stop trying to copy Facebook, rethink its mission statement and find new areas where it can delight us.

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Steve Denning’s most recent book is: The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace For the 21st Century (Jossey-Bass, 2010).

Follow Steve Denning on Twitter @stevedenning

Join the Zurich Gathering For C-Suite Leaders with Steve Denning Zurich Sep 12, 2011

 

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