I have been playing with the new Google+ social networking service for a few days now. I would like to say that I was granted an invite during this limited field test because Google recognized my technological savoir-faire, but in truth I am just fortunate to have a few friends who work at the Big G and one of them was kind enough to send me an invite.
I like Google+, although that doesn’t come as much of a surprise; I like the vast majority of Google’s product designs — largely for their elegant simplicity — and I like Google’s effective but unobtrusive approach to generating revenue from its online products. Others will certainly disagree, but Google’s online presence reminds me of the early days of the World Wide Web, when developers who were simply enamored by the ability to connect with others were sharing content on the Web without concerns about monetizing every megabyte.
Make no mistake: Google is a business and a very profitable one. Google supposedly makes more money from advertising than all U.S. newspapers — combined — and any company that can afford to buy its own Tyrannosaurus Rex is doing just fine in my book.1 But Google’s portfolio of products and services for everyday Internet users is ever-expanding, accessible, and provided at no direct cost to those users. Yes, there are arguments about the value of user information and the cost to Google’s users in terms of privacy, but this is one area where I feel Google has done it right, and it is well-illustrated by the comparison between Google’s new social media network and its largest competitor, Facebook.
My primary qualm with Facebook has always been the platform’s seemingly heavy-handed approach to user privacy. When Facebook creates new opportunities for third parties to utilize its users’ information, the default approach is to set user preferences to “allow,” unless and until users discover the new setting and disallow it. No doubt the company markets the effectiveness of this approach to its partners and generates substantial revenue by doing so. And of course, by finding new outlets to open user data to others, Facebook’s viral networking effect propagates. I find myself constantly policing my Facebook privacy settings to close down new breaches silently added by Facebook. It just feels creepy.
Does Google leverage its users’ information? Of course. Google is scanning my search queries, Google is scanning my Gmail, and Google is no doubt scanning my posts in Google+, all with an eye to delivering relevant click-through advertisements that will appeal to me. But to me, at least, Google’s approach doesn’t feel as obtrusive or clandestine. Some would probably argue that this simply means that Google is better at massaging its users into a sense of security, and while that is almost certainly part of the model, I believe that Google’s “do no evil” mantra is based in reality as much as in marketing. Google sells advertising to its partners and it pairs that advertising with my perceived interests, but there is a disconnect in that pairing: unlike Facebook, Google isn’t simply feeding my demographic data to its partners to use as they see fit. It’s the lesser of two evils, in my mind, in exchange for free access to the Google products that I actually like to use.
So what else do I like about Google+? The “circles,” for one. Google allows me to categorize my connections into groups known as “circles,” including “friends,” “family,” “acquaintances,” and people who I don’t know personally, but whose posts I like to follow (“following”). Whenever I post content — comments, photos, my own biographical data, etc. — I can decide which circles get access to it. This goes against the grain of viral marketing that Facebook has employed, because it trims down the distribution of users’ content to others, limiting opportunities for growth of the platform through connections. But Google, no doubt, recognizes that its product will expand without employing that approach and it knows that users like me will appreciate the privacy that its circles provide.
In addition to circles, I like the simple interface inherent in Google+. While I am certain that the GUI will evolve in time as the platform develops, I enjoy the streamlined and inconspicuous interface which is characteristic of all of Google’s products. Even the Google+ mobile Android app, which I am using on my smart phone, has a clean feel to it and it simply works, even in beta.
An interesting spin on all of this is the potential downside (for Google) of one of my other favorite aspects of Google+: it is highly integrated with Google’s products and services. In an age where my data is increasingly spread around on the Internet, I like the fact that Google+ simply ties itself to the other Google products that I already use, and I can tighten down the number of online products that I utilize by keeping them in one family. Google+ integrates my Google Profile, my contacts, my Google Talk chat interface, my Picasa photos, etc. Many have voiced concerns about the Big Brother effect inherent in consolidating all of one’s online interactions in one company’s products, and there are certainly some valid arguments there, even after wading through the wilder conspiracy theories. However, I think the larger concern for Google should be the risk of antitrust persecution stemming from its integrative approach to its products.
Greatness is a double-edged sword: a company may become successful when it accomplishes a multitude of tasks for its customers, especially if it accomplishes them incredibly well through innovation and business acumen. When that kind of efficiency includes tying products together in a manner that obviates the need for consumers to rely upon other companies situated in the same industry, there are inevitably antitrust concerns. Google has been active in integrating its products, a fact that has not escaped the attention of the FTC, which launched an antitrust probe into Google’s activities last month. That inquiry, by the way, has not yet lead to a subpoena, but it will be interesting to see if one of the things that I love best about Google is also the thing that leads to its next major legal speed bump.
Google can and almost certainly has taken some notes from Microsoft’s tiff with the DOJ more than a decade ago, which was characterized by Microsoft’s heavy-handed attempts to tie its Internet Explorer browser to its other products, in order to give its browser a competitive edge over the competing, well-established, and now notably-defunct Netscape browser. Once Google+ is opened to the public, the effect of its integration with other Google products should become more evident. If that effect ultimately spells the demise of Facebook, there will be more fuel for an antitrust fire. I, for one, would hate to see that.