Monday, 25 July 2011

Five improvements for Google+ v1.1

I'm still backing Google+ and rapidly finding that I post there now, rather than on Facebook. That said though, there are a few things about it that need a tweak, so here's what I'd do next if I was in charge at Google HQ.

Incoming just doesn't work for me. Random people add you and then shout about whatever's on their mind, which is usually some waffle about social media being awesome. If they were interesting, I'd put them in a circle.

I can see what Google were trying to do and there's a good idea hiding in there, that you might like to have a place where you can see posts from the people who follow you, but you don't follow. The trouble is, people who follow you but you don't follow, tend to be the sorts of people who spam out social media and marketing links to every story they can find. They follow everybody! I don't follow them back because they're not adding value - there's no opinion, no insight and no personality.

Incoming in its current form doesn't work and once the platform's open to all, it's going to be a recipe for spamming. I'd be tempted to combine it with Sparks, which brings me on to...

Anyone use these? Thought not.

If Incoming can be a little annoying, Sparks is pretty much irrelevant. It's a news scraper and tracker in a social network, which ignores the principle that Google have got so right with Circles. I like to keep my news and my friends' opinion about the news separate. Sparks should just show me what Google+ users think. Google have got a great product already that can find me mainstream news stories.

From these first two points then, I'd

- Restrict sparks to just contain posts from users of Google+

- Then add filters to Sparks, to select either posts from all of Google+ (including brands), just personal users of Google+, only your circles or from your extended network.

- Now you can dump Incoming. You've got the pull model for topics that the web is so brilliant at, so you don't need people to shout at each other.

Hashtags, please
They work on Twitter and they'll work here. The updated Sparks will work better if people can flag up topics and then search for them with tags. How about a little plus sign in front of a word, if you want to announce it as a topic? That would be lovely.

An API for photos and video (and other things creative people make)
I like Picasa, so Google+ using it as a photo hosting service works for me. I don't use Google's video hosting because I like Vimeo (paragliding videos anyone?) This is a mistake Facebook made but Google can go one better. Don't only allow people to post things to their feed that they store in other places. Build an API and tie them in to profiles, so that it doesn't matter where I choose to host my content.

As clever as Google+ might turn out to be, it can't be a one-size fits all solution, because people are different. Let them be different and then pull the results of whatever they make into your platform.

As well as photo or video, with the right API, I could have a music tab on my profile, for music I like and music I've recorded. You've just jumped into the only territory that has kept Myspace staggering along for the past few years. Open your content platform up and see what people invent. Be the network that joins it all together.

It's time to let everybody play
If Google aren't just about ready to open up access to Google+, then they launched it too early. I like that it was launched with an invite-only wall as it helped to create a buzz around the product. It also made sure everybody had somebody to share with when they first arrived. If you're going to avoid people drifting back to what they did before, then you need to let everybody in now.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Spooky Gmail

I've been mailing back and forth on Gmail this morning, discussing bids on a house that my girlfriend and I are looking at.

Google sent me a calendar invite for this afternoon, suggesting we up our bid and meet them "in the middle." My girlfriend didn't send me that. Google did. It's taken us a little while to work that out.

It's very, very clever (and not a little spooky) but I think it might have got the wrong end of the stick on this one.

Here's the email that sparked off the Google machine

"Or we say we'll meet them in the middle at 210, but we cannot go any higher. If they say no to that then we just leave it with them (and dare I say it, walk away if we need to.)"

And what Google did!

Google just passed the Turing Test. Even if it didn't realise it was joking.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Seven reasons why Google+ is going to win

Last week, I said that it was far too early to judge whether Google+ is a Facebook killer. Here we are just a week later and I'm ready to stick my neck on the line. Google+ is going to win. By miles. Here's why.

Shiny, happy people
Google+ looks good. It's uncluttered and it has plenty of white space, like a good website should. I had a revelation after spending twenty minutes or so on Google+ last week and then quickly flicking over to Facebook. You know what doing that feels like? Like going back to your old Hotmail account from Gmail, that's what. How's Hotmail doing on the new users front recently?
That impression is with an ad-blocker on my browser too. Facebook's even more grim if you turn it off.

You can't square a circle
We all know that the big selling point of Google+ is circles. They work. After a week, I've already got colleagues, friends and random interesting people on Google+ and I'd never have done that with Facebook. With Facebook, you always have to choose between merging work colleagues, friends and family into one group and sharing everything with everybody, or keeping your network restricted. As a result, Facebook is 'only' most people's social network for friends and acquaintances. There's no choice to make with Google+; you just add everybody even vaguely interesting and throw them into a bucket that you won't share your stag party photos with.

I've read in a few places that Facebook's developers could just add circles, but I don't believe they can. Circles will only work if they're central to the whole platform - you can't bolt them on as an afterthought. If Facebook want seamless, easy to use circles, they're going to be in a constant battle with their legacy database structure. They also need a whole new friends maintenance front end. By the time they've fiddled with the current structure and failed once, Microsoft have got involved and wanted to tie Facebook circles to MSN, they've failed again and finally decided it needs a ground up re-engineering, it will be mid 2012 and far, far, far too late.

Yes, Facebook has sharing settings, but that's exactly my point. They're a bolt-on rather than baked into the core of what the platform does and so they're a pain in the neck to use.

The Germans say they're handy
Social networks work brilliantly on smartphones. You get notifications instantly and you can share instantly. We're only just getting started with the potential for instant photo and video sharing for example.

You might have noticed that Google is quite good at mobile. Even if Facebook build fantastic mobile apps (which they don't), Google will always be ahead, because they know what's coming up in the next version of Android. The next version Google+ app can incorporate new Android features before Facebook even knows they exist.

All that and the Google+ Android app is already better than Facebook's

A picture says a thousand words
Let's face it, Facebook's photo storage has always been pretty poor; low quality pictures and the galleries aren't great. Picasa is very good and tied into the heart of Google+. Photographers like things like Picasa keeping EXIF data from the photos rather than stripping it out. You can actually use Picasa as a proper photo storage tool rather than a toy that's just for sharing quickly.

Back to mobile, if you don't strip the EXIF data off, you can locate and map geotagged photos. Powerful? Oh yes.

Show me the money
Facebook really needs to start showing it can make money. Or rather profit. But every time it tries, there's an outcry about privacy, or obtrusive ads. Let's be honest, Google can run Google+ at a loss if they like and tailored search based on user profiles will make them money even if they never actually advertise directly on the platform.

Not being a slave to ads on the network is a hugely strong position. Google can make Google+ work for users. Facebook, first and foremost, needs to work for advertisers.

And back to mobile once more... There isn't much room for advertising on a mobile phone screen, so not needing to run ads is an even bigger advantage.

Lock 'em up and throw away the key
If it's so great, then what's to stop you migrating to Google+? Absolutely nothing. You don't need to take anything with you - not even your Facebook photos as they're low quality and were shared in a moment, not stored there as a long term solution. All Facebook has is knowledge of your network and judging by the speed that my contacts are finding each other on Google+, a lot of people have misjudged how valuable that is. Give people a cool animated circle and they'll rebuild their network in a few hours one evening, just because it's a fun thing to do.

Zuckerberg is terrified
Why else would Facebook be shutting down export routes for your data as fast as developers can set them up? That's not the sign of a company which believes it's got the strongest product and it's not the way to persuade people you're the best and most trustworthy guardian of their data.

The only thing I can see that would halt the Google+ bandwagon is an antitrust ruling, but if Google are going to be slapped down by competition regulators then it will take ages to happen in either of Europe or America, never mind both. The regulators have also got their eye on search dominance, not social, and by the time they get moving, Google+ will already have won.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Too big to fail?

Since I wrote this post on the Brilliant Media blog, I've heard one argument a lot, in various forms, in favour of Facebook being with us for good.

People seem to divide broadly into two camps...
  1. People who think - even want - Facebook to disappear and are waiting for the crash (in case you hadn't guessed, I'm in this one)

  2. People who think Facebook isn't going anywhere, because it's now 'too big to fail'

As an example of this second camp, the BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones gave us a quick mention on his blog (thanks! That will do wonders for the SEO) but dismissed the argument that Facebook was now vulnerable and could go the way of Myspace, saying

"I don't really buy that - Facebook is far more widely used and cemented into millions of people's social lives than MySpace ever was."

Essentially, Facebook won't fail like Myspace did, because it's bigger than Myspace ever was.

This is going to be pure opinion - no data this time, sorry about that - but I'd like to expand on why I don't buy this 'too big to fail' argument.

Firstly, I've seen no evidence to say at what size something becomes an inevitable part of our lives for at least the forseeable future, particularly on the web. At the time, everybody thought Myspace was pretty huge and Newscorp paid $580m for it, so at least somebody thought it was a good bet for the future. Facebook is bigger, of course, but the fundamental model of what it does is the same. It just does it with real names and a better user interface.

We think Facebook's huge, but it only really covers the private aspects of our lives. Work networks are what Linkedin is for. Imagine a platform that did everybody's working and private relationships (Google +? At this stage, who knows?). It's just an example, but that would be a far better commercial proposition and potentially be far bigger than Facebook. I'm not saying it will happen, just showing that there is a potential network out there that's bigger than Facebook, so the 'this one's too big' argument doesn't wash with me. We may not know what 'big' looks like yet...

By training, I'm an economist and so I'm interested in the motivations for why people and businesses do what they do. Rather than looking at something big and saying 'wow, that's huge, it will be here forever!', I'd rather talk about why people use it now and whether that might change. Economists talk about barriers to entry - how easy is it for a competitor to set up and to do what you do, only better?

So why do we use Facebook?

That's easy, it knows our network and who we like to connect with. Once you're connected, it can do messages, photos, chat, games... all the things we like to share.

So I use Facebook to share. I use Facebook to share because everybody else uses Facebook to share. And so do you.

The single barrier to entry for a competitor is that it's hard for somebody else to duplicate your network and that even if they built the world's most stunning social platform, it's no good unless your friends are on it too. Statement of the obvious, I know.

Other web tools have better lock-ins than that. Flickr has a massive storage of photos, that it would be a pain to move. For me, Blogger has this blog, which I'm unlikely to put in the effort to migrate (I still might though.) Facebook, almost by definition is very current. Its content is transient and I don't need to take any of the stuff it stores with me when I go, except for the network. Sure it stores lots of photos, but it's not very good at it and I only used it to share them quickly. They won't need uploading again or they 'd already be held somewhere better and just linked to from my Facebook page. Do you love Farmville that much? Or was it a diversion for a few weeks before you moved on.

Regardless of some people now actively wanting Facebook to fail - which I think is a dangerous sign for Zuckerberg - I don't think that network effect alone is strong enough to insulate Facebook.

Let's take Google+ for a minute. I'm absolutely not saying it 's the Facebook killer (see my last post) but it's a useful example. Google are taking a softly, softly approach to social this time and I think that's the right way to go. As a start up, you can't compete with Facebook all at once, but you can attack chinks in its armour through micro-networks.

Looking at a few personal examples, my sunday league football team tried to use Facebook to organise games and practice sessions, but gave up. It doesn't matter why it didn't work, but it didn't. We drifted back to email and I'd say Facebook's vulnerable for organising teams and events. Interestingly, Wave could potentially have done a cracking job, but never quite got going.

I paraglide whenever I can and love to share photos and videos with other pilots. Quality is important here and Facebook's just not up to the job. I'd also like to be able to build a looser network, who I wouldn't want as Facebook friends because they're acquintances at best, but I'd like to see their videos and read their tales of good flying days and they'd like to see mine (I hope.) Facebook can't do that. Google+ might be able to and it's definitely another chink in the armour.

My prediction is that Facebook will start to see it's base nibbled away at, by better organisation of micro-networks until somebody else builds a critical mass and then they'll see their traffic drop off a cliff over a couple of years. The Brilliant Media blog post was intended to show why I think we may just have reached the tipping point, where Facebook becomes vulnerable. Yes, Facebook could build those features, but their platform is starting to feel big and slow and complicated and there's no way they'll be contemplating a re-write from the ground up. It's the same problem of inertia that means Microsoft can't do phones and tablets.

By all means argue. I've been wrong before... But I'm interested in hearing why it wouldn't or couldn't happen, beyond 'Facebook's too big'. At least lets discuss what 'too big' means. Which parts of Facebook are now so big they're invulnerable?