Mike Hanbery July 30, 2013

Google Plus: You Will Be Assimilated

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Google touts Google Plus as a social network. Is it social?

One of the more compelling villains in the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation was the Borg.

The Borg are a collection of species that have been turned into cybernetic organisms functioning as drones of the Collective, or the hive…The Borg force other species into their collective and connect them to “the hive mind”; the act is called assimilation…The Borg’s ultimate goal is “achieving perfection”. – Wikipedia

The Borg were bad and bad ass. They even got Jean-Luc Picard. I know this because early in my career I could not afford cable TV and the Internet was not a thing people had in their homes. Picard eventually escaped because he, too, is a righteous bad ass and because he had a staff of writers who otherwise would quickly be out of a job.

The trouble with necessary evils is that whole “evil” thing. Many of us remember when Google’s slogan was, “Don’t be evil.” In order to see this slogan, you had to visit Google.com. Couldn’t miss it. They even trademarked the phrase.

Since those carefree days, Google (and a few other people) have decided that there may be a spot of money to be made in this Internet thing, and that blanket statements and rigid requirements such as not being evil are far too limiting to be pragmatic or applicable. Plus, what is, “evil,” anyway? Isn’t that just so subjective?

Maybe.  It’s true that one could get through a day and perhaps one’s whole life without needing Google. There are, after all, other search engines that altogether get used almost a third as much as Google gets used.

So when you’re a business or an agency advising a business on search marketing, Google rightfully dominates the conversation and budget. Unless your business model requires you to go where people aren’t, you go to Google. And Google’s latest obsession is proving that its Google Plus social network is a real thing. The question is: How much of a “social network” thing is it?

A little history is probably in order. Google Plus really wasn’t ever supposed to exist. Here’s a synopsis of how this went down:

Thank you for calling Facebook. How may I help you?

Hi there. This is Google.

Mm-hmm. Suuuure it is.

No, seriously. We are really big fans of your work. The behavioral data you have on your users is just incredible.

We know. Thank you.

Right. So, we’re looking at how our stuff works and realizing that the instantaneous delivery of a list of relevant links was pretty cool a few years ago, but if search is going to continue to be relevant, it needs to start incorporating the degree of behavioral data and social graph you’ve developed.

We agree.

Great! So how about giving us all that data so we can make Google search more awesome?

No, thank you.

Seriously! Hey, we’ll pay you! We’re Google! We have more money than you can shake a stick at! How much money will it take?

There isn’t enough money. We won’t be sharing our user data with you.

Is this a “don’t be evil” thing?

Ha! Certainly not. We’re sharing it with Microsoft and Lord only knows what they’re doing with it. And we’re revamping Facebook’s search engine to give people more reasons to use it instead of Google, anyway. Also, we just plain don’t like you.

This is your final opportunity. If we are unable to reach agreement, we will build a social network. Everybody will come. We won’t need your behavioral data because everybody will just give it to us, too.

So nice speaking with you. If you need additional information, please “like” our Facebook Page. Buh-bye.

And Google was partially right. They built it.

At a conference in the summer of 2012, I participated in a roundtable discussion about Google Plus and its viability as a social network. The moderator pointed out that Guy Kawasaki and Seth Godin had successfully generated engagement among their communities on Google Plus. Yes, responded someone who looked exactly like me and who was sitting in my chair, but they developed their communities on other Internet social media networks and brought those communities with them when they got their Google Plus invitations. Quite not the same.

So Google built their Google Plus social network but nobody came. Those who did come did not engage.

That was 2011. Now, in 2013, Google trumpets Google Plus as having overtaken Twitter as the world’s second-largest social network with over 500 million accounts. Should we take that number at face value?

“The volunteer portion of this exercise is over. Now, it’s time for the draft.” – Denton Van Zan, Reign of Fire

When we (well, you…I jumped early) failed to take the hint, Google changed the rules. Google’s entire marketing approach to Google Plus shifted dramatically. Where it had once been by invitation only, now every man, woman and business touching Google has a Google Plus identity whether they want one or not.

It started with Gmail. Many people flocked to Gmail because it’s great. Easily accessible from anywhere in the world, no limits on memory, integrates with Google Reader (RIP, Google Reader) and YouTube…and more! Well one day, you logged on to check your Gmail account and learned you had a Google Plus page. No need to thank us, said Google, which was unnecessary because you probably weren’t going to do that anyway. If, Google decreed, you are going to have a Gmail account, you are going to be part of Google Plus.

Next was Google Places. For businesses, local search optimization has become an increasingly important part of the marketing mix, in large part because of the way Google started returning results for local searches. The flagship piece of a business’s local search marketing effort is its Google Places page. So one day, Mr. Small Business Owner logged on to his Google Places account to change some information or respond to a review and learned the business now had a Google Plus Business listing! And he could (and should) claim, verify and optimize this listing and link it to his personal Google Plus account!

Now, Google is rewarding blog authors who link Google Plus to their websites. Want your blog to score well in search? Google Plus Authorship is a must!

Benefits abound for those who embrace the changes and optimize these assets, but it’s gotten to be a little ridiculous. If your business has a YouTube channel, Google will make a Google Plus page for the channel. Does Google really believe a majority of people and businesses intend to develop individually marketable identities for, and build online communities around, their YouTube channels? Or are they simply trying to pad the stats? (Hint: They are simply trying to pad the stats.)

Here’s where Google’s Borg strategy falls apart: They can successfully force us to have personal and business pages. We can choose to enjoy the resulting search engine marketing benefits or watch as our competitors do. But they cannot force us to engage in the network. Without that engagement, the behavioral data they seek remains elusive and their end goal unreachable.

To date, Google Plus has succeeded in becoming a powerful weapon in search engine optimization and search engine marketing arsenals. As a social media network, however, it has yet to find its identity. When it does, the trends of those who have engaged suggest it will rival LinkedIn much more so than Facebook. Why? Because most people who have arrived and are actively using the network are doing so for marketing and professional purposes. Mining their behavioral data, Google will undoubtedly marvel at how business-minded we have all become and how open we are to peer networking!

Google Plus has something on LinkedIn: LinkedIn is opt-in. Google Plus is only so in theory. If you need the Internet, you need Google. If your business has an Internet component—and it does—you need Google. Ergo, you need Google Plus.

Our lives don’t have Jean-Luc Picard’s writers. Google Plus, attendance in your class is mandatory and we shall attend. Our grades on the class participation portion of the course, however, may suffer.

How to Use This Information

Google makes the rules. You get to choose whether or not to play. Get thee to Google Plus. Optimize your presence on that network. Set up Authorship. Link your accounts. Embrace this as a way of life.

Resistance is futile.

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