Boy, a lot of people are upset about Google’s decision to integrate a social layer into its search results.
Twitter was the first and most vocal critic of Google’s new social search layer. The tension between the two firms is complicated and a history of their relationship is beyond this post, but suffice it to say that Google’s latest move does represent a challenge for services like Twitter.
Why Did Google Integrate Social Data Into Search?
To understand why, it’s important to understand why Google had to get into the social networking business with Google+ in the first place.
Google’s main business is search. Their original breakaway innovation was developing a PageRank algorithm designed to tap “the collective intelligence of the web” in order to improve their search results. Prior to the social web, most of that intelligence came through links between sites: the more sites linking to a site, the more interesting it is, and the higher up it should be in search results on a given search term.
The social web introduced a superior form of that “collective intelligence.” All that “liking” and sharing we do on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks represents an extremely valuable source of information on how important a particular piece of content is. The collective intelligence of social networks is superior to the old webpage-to-webpage linking because it moves much faster and in greater volumes. Think about how quick and easy it is to share stuff on these services. It takes just a minute to send a link out to your friends, and liking those links is even faster and easier.
All of that information is extremely useful when it comes to ranking content, so you can see why the social web presented Google with a profound dilemma: its treasured algorithms were being supplanted by a higher velocity layer of collective intelligence – and they didn’t have access to it. What’s more, Facebook had struck a deal to share that social intelligence with Google’s primary search rival – Microsoft’s Bing.
Google tried to make a deal work with Twitter, but in the end, the partnership fell apart. At one level, the details of how that happened don’t really matter. The real question is why, and I think there are two main reasons. The first is that, from Google’s perspective, this layer of social information was simply too strategic to trust to an independent third party. The second is that, from Twitter’s perspective, supplying Google with this kind of social intelligence is a double edged sword that ultimately leads to its commoditization.
The Problem for Twitter
Commoditization is what happens when one firm hollows out the value of another firm’s services by making them interchangeable with other services. Let’s say you’re Flickr, and you start exposing all your social data so Google can better exposes the photos of Flickr users on the web. Sure, we can get to most of those images today via Google image search, but if Flickr’s social liking data is made available to us via Google Search, Flickr’s service starts to lose its value – at least to people who use it primarily for viewing at other people’s images. It’s still valuable as a publishing platform, but it’s become much less valuable as a viewing platform.
This is the same dilemma that Twitter faced. Expose this social data with Google and the content people are sharing on Twitter becomes more visible via search. But, in the long-run, doing that makes it less likely that people will view that content on Twitter – and that’s a problem for Twitter because lots of page views is the key to generating advertising dollars.
Now that Google has forged its own path with Google+, Twitter’s options have shrunk dramatically. Their gnashing of teeth around Search plus Your World is a public expression of this underlying frustration at their current strategic position.
The Bigger Picture
I’m not usually a fan of too much concentration of power anywhere – and Google is no exception. With that said, I think what’s happening right now could actually be healthy in the long-run. Our social graph data does need to be commoditized. Representations of our social sharing and, more generally, our connections with other people online, need to be standardized and I believe that commoditization, along the lines of what Google is doing, could lead to that.
My hope is that with Google+, Google will be in a stronger position to push for standardization of the way we expose our social connections online. Google has demonstrated admirable – and tangible – moves in this direction with data portability. I can easily export my Circles and other Google-maintained data with Google Takeout, as you can see from this screenshot of me exporting my actual Google+ Circles.
Ultimately, I believe that all this data about myself and my connections with other people is my data. I want to control it myself. That’s why things like personal data lockers and Vendor Relationship Management are such powerful visions.
Google’s mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” and its ability to make money doing that still seems to rely on an open web. To that end, the company is commoditizing our social data, and I believe that is a good trend, as long as the company doesn’t abuse its power in the process.
There are a lot of critical assumptions here, and we need to remember that, in the end, Google is a company that needs to balance its desire to “not be evil” with making money. I believe that 2012 will be an important turning point in determining whether Google’s success with Google+ will transcend beyond what’s good for Google into a force that’s good for all of us all.