As with a new continent rising from the depths, the mountain tops of Google+ hint tantalizingly at an underlying terrain we cannot yet see. One of the more mysterious features of this emerging landmass is the island of Google Sparks.
Today, Google Sparks is a way to follow various topics of interest. Some, like Comics, are top-level categories, suggested by Google. Some, you get to through a search box prompting you to “find stuff you’re interested in…” Here, for example, is a Spark I follow on “social enterprise.” You can follow it now too, by simply clicking the blue “Add interest” button.
Why Sparks Matters to Google
Why was it so very important to Google that they include Sparks in this first release of Google+? Because Sparks is critical to protecting their golden egg; that’s right, Sparks is how Google defends its search business from Facebook.
It’s just the start mind you, but with Sparks, Google is trying to get you to share interesting content with people using Circles rather than Facebook. By “sparking” this kind of online conversation (get it?), Google gets valuable feedback on the relative importance of various web content. In the old days, it calculated that importance by crawling links, but social sharing of content is an equally important – and much more real-time – source of this information. It’s the primary reason Facebook is so scary to Google.
Sparking Some Speculation
Sparks is strong evidence of just how seriously Google takes the Facebook threat. Facebook gets social, but Google really gets information. You can bet that Sparks will evolve into a critical piece of Google’s “social strategy.” So here are a few speculations on where Google is likely to take Sparks in the near future:
Think of Google Sparks as a pre-determined set of topic categories that you can subscribe to – kind of like RSS feeds. Note, for example, that that Comics Sparks feed mentioned above has its own URL: https://plus.google.com/sparks/interests/Comics. It’s still not clear how these categories are generated, but Google has an excellent understanding of what people look for on the web and if they’re not using that intelligence to help them optimize these top level content categories, they will soon.
The next logical step will be to allow people to create their own content Sparks categories, and here’s where Sparks and Google Alerts start to look increasingly similar. Google Alerts gives me periodic updates by mail on various search terms, so that when someone writes something about “Gideon Rosenblatt” and Google’s web crawlers pick that up, I hear about it. That level of granularity isn’t yet available on Sparks, but it’s pretty close and will probably get there soon. So Sparks will start to look more and more like ongoing updates of specific terms you care about – a nice extension of Google’s core search business.
The other big question, of course, is Google Reader. There’s such a thing as too much integration, but while I’m looking at feeds of information that can serve as useful “sparks” for sharing, my RSS subscriptions are the most natural place to start. Most of us who use Google Reader break our RSS feeds into various folders, and my guess is that most of these folders are organized by topics – just like Sparks. Expect some day to be able to tweak and personalize Sparks so that my Sparks stream on “social enterprise” has my own particular take on it. If you like the resulting feed, you can always subscribe to it by simply adding it in Google Sparks. You know… kind of like Lists on Twitter, only it’s flows of RSS content rather than tweets.
Finally, Google Sparks needs to better connect with Google Circles. Today, the only way they connect is when I share something I found on Sparks via my Circles.
One of things that’s really interesting about Circles is that it allows me to be more discriminating about what I share with whom. This is a huge weakness of Twitter, where I have no way to segment my tweets by what different people are most likely to care about. Once I’m able to customize my own Sparks, I’ll be much better at sharing them with my Circles. I’d probably want to align these things in ways that make me more efficient at sharing interesting content from my “Social CRM” Sparks feed with my “Social CRM” Circle. My family and most of my friends don’t want to see that stuff, but other people do. Sparks and Circles, working together, could help me do that very efficiently and effectively.
Finally, I want to see who else is following a particular Spark. I’m interested in knowing the other people who follow that “Social CRM” Spark, for example, as I might want to add them to my “Social CRM” Circle. So, in a way, every Spark should have its own Circle, made up of people who’ve added it.
I’m a geek. I admit it. And I haven’t been this excited about a new technology platform in years.
Google+ excites me because it’s a real move in the direction of an open social graph. I’ve talked a bit in the past about some of the amazing potential that something like that will unleash in the area of Social CRM. Google clearly has a homerun on its hands with Google+ and I look forward to seeing the rest of this new continent surface from the depths.