I ain’t gonna lie; I am no social media creature... not that it matters much. Despite recent reports about Facebook losing momentum in Europe and North America, its staggering worldwide user count still indicates I’m part of a rare and possibly dying

AS ONLINE marketers, however, we have a duty to keep abreast of new developments in the social media and search arenas, simply because that’s where online traffic flows best these days. And boy is there daily news on these fronts: Specific Media buying a discounted MySpace from News Corp, a Linkedln IPO valuating the company at more than $9 billion. On Google’s doorstep, the forthcoming Yahoo!/Bing alliance, combined with the growing promiscuity between Microsoft and Facebook (Bing, Skype) sees the ‘Big G’s’ algorithm-based business haemorrhage traffic to more people centric destinations.
Then there’s Google launching Google+. Now that’s right up our street: the boundaries between search and social blurring even further. Let’s take a closer look.

Google and social

It would be short-sighted to reduce Google’s latest effort to crack the social nut as a belated reaction to social media’s success in recent years. Google’s interest in the field extends as far back as January 2004 with the launch of Orkut, one of the world's first social platforms, released one month ahead of Facebook hitting Harvard. Named after its creator, Google employee Orkut Buyiikokte (good thing they used his first name), the venture starts well, but gradually loses ground to MySpace and the emerging Facebook. It’s now operated from Brazil, its most successful market, which represents almost 50 percent of its users (followed closely by India at 40 percent).

Skip forward five years. It’s now May 2009 and, in a renewed foray into the social media space, Google Wave is launched.

Spun as a real-time communication platform - part email, part Twitter, part instant messaging - it never really takes off, because, as per Google’s own account, it “has not seen the user adoption we would have liked”. Try again.

Less than a year later, in February 2010, Google Buzz is unveiled as a range of social features stapled to Google’s web-based email system, Gmail. Buzz quickly attracts the wrong kind of attention - including a class action lawsuit - thanks to the inadequate thinking behind its initial privacy framework. A default setting of sharing email contacts and the inability for users without a Google profile to make their information private prompts press outfits such as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) to describe Buzz’s arrival as having “ignited a hailstorm of criticism”. CBC indicates, “One user blogged about how Buzz automatically added her abusive ex-boyfriend as a follower and exposed her communications with a current partner to him. Other bloggers commented that repressive governments in countries such as China or Iran could use Buzz to expose dissidents”. Not good. Next.

Emerald sea

If you’re reading this, there’s no doubt you've heard about Google +1. Hailed as Google’s answer to Facebook’s ‘Like’ button, it enables logged-in Google users to recommend a search result or webpage. On a website, a total count of all ‘+is’ is displayed next to the +1 button, giving you an idea on how successful a webpage is. Nothing special there; ‘Like’ stuff. More interestingly, when one of your friends + is a webpage, a personal recommendation (John Smith -t-id this) shows on that page, but also in algorithmically altered Google search results. Now that’s new: social recommendations directly and unashamedly plugged into Google’s core activity.

We all know this is only going to work socially if it achieves critical mass. But can Google pull it off?

Google +1 is just one component of Google’s largest social project to date. Codenamed Emerald Sea in its development phase, it is now officially known as Google-h After initial testing using its own employees as guinea pigs, Google decided to phase out the release, unmoored some features into separate products and launched separately. The +1 button is one of these features.

At the time of writing, Google+ is being rolled out on a limited field trial, meaning if you don’t have close friends at Google you won’t get up close and personal with this bad boy. Luckily, it recently released more details on its functionalities.

Google+ works within the Google Profiles environment, but not as we know it. The company is in the process of phasing out the old style ‘private’ profiles, as they arguably defeat social purposes: help people find friends and connect with them. All private profiles will be deleted and only public ones will remain. Wise move, as it will prevent further privacy outcry from people claiming they were not aware of the change.

Core Google+ functionalities include Sparks, a media newsfeed you can customise and share with friends. The Circles function allows users to create groups, assign people to groups, and decide who sees what. One can create a ‘Family’ circle where you select with whom to share personal information, a ‘TT’ circle to share your passion for Take That (if you so happen to like the band), or a ‘Work’ circle where selected users only gets access to work or innocuous stuff - not that picture of you hanging naked from a chandelier. That, you can assign to another group called ‘Chandelier’, and share only with like- minded naked chandelier swingers - if you know any (I don’t). Hangouts is a multi-user video conferencing system, while Huddle creates on-the-fly groups for web and mobile conversations. Instant Upload allows for instant uploading of photos and videos (web or mobile) straight to your profile.

Why should you care?

Google processes about two-thirds of online searches worldwide and 89.8 percent in the UK. At this point in time, as affiliate marketers, our income depends on Google more than anyone else. Not Facebook, not Twitter, fust as for ‘Like’, a count of -us will be displayed on every page the +1 functionality/ button has been embedded on. This count will display whether your visitors are logged- in to Google or not. As a website owner, a large number of -us on your website pages will confer another sense of popularity to your online property. Moreover, +1 is already factored in the Google search algorithm. If friends in your + network have +id a site that is somehow linked to your search terms, the algorithm will bump this result up the rankings as it will see it as more relevant to the social ‘you’.

Also worth noting is that +1 metrics are already available in Google Webmaster Tools. There’s no hurt in trying and monitoring it closely. If Google Profiles fails to reach critical mass - by far its biggest challenge - you can bet it will recycle data accumulated in the exercise, because it has value, so not everything will be lost.

Finally, the +1 button you can add to your site is even more recessive than the Facebook ‘Like’ button. If you allowed space for this, why not allow space for +is too if that can help lift your perceived popularity and potentially boost your Google rankings for + networked users?

An enlightening allegory

A giant hand-painted mural welcomes visitors to the Google campus building where the Emerald Sea project started. It represents a stormy coastline, where a giant wave is about to swallow a modest sailing ship. The image was found by Google VP of product management, Bradley Horowitz, when he searched for 'Emerald Sea’ in Google images. The 1878 painting, from German artist Albert Bierstadt, captured Horowitz’s imagination so much that he commissioned a pair of art students to copy it on the office wall.

When asked about the meaning behind the codename and the painting, Vic Gundotra, Senior Vice President of social for Google, explained: “We needed a codename that captured the fact that either there was a great opportunity to sail to new horizons and new things, or that we were going to drown by this wave.”

“Drown”. You heard it. From Google. Now if that’s not a clear indication about how serious it is about Google+, I don’t know what is.
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