Strategies to Approach Google’s Social Service Challenge

Google’s effort into social services where many consider being critical to its future growth has produced less than remarkable results. This month, its returning CEO Larry Page is putting all employees on notice. According to Business Insider:

“Last Friday, new Google CEO Larry Page announced that all Google employees will have their 2011 bonuses either go up or go down as much as 25% depending on how well Google “perform[s] against our strategy to integrate relationships, sharing and identity across our products.””*

Larry don’t just want Google to be social, he wants to integrate identities. I will explain the concept of online “identity”, why Larry’s goal is an incredible challenge and offer three strategic approaches to it.

The Identities
The thing about identity**: is that people have and want to maintain multiple identities both online and offline. This is because people intrinsically understand that the need to be perceived differently in different social circles. Ask your self this: how do your colleagues from work perceive you compare to how your friends perceive you? Identities can be categorized into the follow four types, professional, socially specified, unsynced, anonymous (oxymoronic, I know):

  • Professional identities: this is the identity users like to be perceived by people who’s associated with their career, namely their current of prospective employers, peers in their industry, customers and others. This is the identity most users would like to be found when others google their name. It can be considered use’s formal or on-record identity.
  • Private identities: These are identities users like to be perceived by people in various non-professional private social circles. Users often project a slightly varied identity depending on which private social circles they are in, for example, a user may be more coarse in front of childhood friends (fart jokes etc) than with university friends (where there is potential romantic interest present). This variation may either be the result of a conscious unilateral decision and or psychologically encouraged by how users think they are perceived. These identities have until recently being largely kept offline, until social-networking services (such as Facebook) that synchronized online and offline private identities proliferated. Moreover, because of Facebook’s predominance, users are encouraged to connect with the friend from various private social circle using one Facebook username thus the wall between various socially specified identities have begun to dissipate.
  • Unsynced identities: These are identities that cannot be linked to users offline identity without overcoming significant hurdles. Examples are online forum (Reddit) pseudonyms , online gaming (WoW) pseudonyms, blog pseudonyms, etc. These are identities that users use to project a specific image they want the respective online community to see. These identities are of course largely online only. These identities allow the user to act in a way and build a reputation that is very different to their other identities.
  • Anonymous identities: These are the oxymoronically non-identities. These identities are not only unsynced (can be linked to offline identity), it doest even have a recognizable online pseudonym to build a reputation with. Perhaps the most famous example in the English-speaking world is the 4chan forum, where almost all activity are conducted under the name “Anonymous”. These identities allow users to behave in a “completely unvarnished, unfiltered, raw way” and have every single online behavior be judged by its merits. This kind of identity is almost exclusively online.

To the users, each one of these identities are islands and precious in its own right. Users will resist attempts to merge them. World of Warcraft’s proposal to require real offline identification to post on its online forums, in effect merging user’s unsynced identities with their other identities, received massive user protest and failed, precisely because users don’t want their island identity merged.

The Challenge
The desire by users to maintain multiple identities is a challenge for Google because its stated goal will result in users integrating their identities. Integrating users relationships means your colleagues will be able to see who you socialize with when you are not working. Integrating sharing means your boss will know what you share with your friends. As the result, your identities will slowly merge, and there will be increasingly fewer differences between how your boss and friends see you in the offline world, albeit it won’t be entirely the same. This is one of the critical reasons why Google Buzz failed because Buzz was thought of as a Twitter/Facebook-statues-update alternative where users share pithy thoughts with friends using the same Google ID that is linked to the Gmail address users put on their resume. Users reject having their professional identity integrated with their private identity.

The Strategies
Here are the three strategic approaches:

  1. Pick the “best identity” and try to dominate the representation of that identity. There are a number of factors to consider when selecting the best identity, user attention, monetization (pay service) potential, population, indispensability (some identity is more dispensable than others), competition, and possibly others. Google is probably current most associated with user’s professional identity, due to its Google Doc and Gmail being promoted and sometimes used for professional purpose. Google’s stated goal implies they  want to represent user’s private identity, along with professional identity. Don’t. Google should either pick private identity space and fight with the dominating Facebook or commit to the professional identity space. As for unsynced identity space. Google identity are already being used as professional identities, making it really difficult for Google to have a strategy that is centered around unsynced identity. If Google does decide to challenge Facebook directly (I don’t recommend it), try to start with a social identity (or a market) that is currently not well represented by Facebook and go from there (kind of what Orkut is already doing and failing). The best route for Google is probably to dominate the professional identity space which will mean having a Google ID that is interoperable in all major online activity that is associated with user’s career. Google should buy Linkedin (or build a competitor), enter the human resources industry and consider building other career-related online services (how about convincing universities to let Google handle admission information database and or integrate/purchase Khan Academy**?).
  2. Multi-representation. If Google is adamant to the goal of being in both professional and private space, then Google need to build a user-friendly mechanism for users to manage two identity representations, one professional and one private, from one Google ID. Users will need to know which of their actions are visible to all, visible to professional connections or visible to private social circles. A multi-representation mechanism will be a mess to build and to introduce. I don’t think this strategy should be a core strategy, it should serve as a supplementation to the first strategy where Google’s involvement in identities other than the chosen main identity is very limited.
  3. Change User Mentality. If Google can’t or won’t build a compelling multi-representation mechanism, then it will just have to convince users that there are more benefits to integrated identities than not. This is a dangerous strategy if Google does succeed in convincing users that its ok to merge identities, Google may face a strong threat of Facebook using its private identity space dominance to spread into the professional identity space. It would suck for Google. To do it right, Google needs to add social aspects that will integrated identities where Google can leverage its dominance and can convince users of its benefits to integrating. This strategy is closest to Google’s current approach. Google’s new social search service +1 adds a private social aspect to its dominating search engine, whether it can convince its user of its benefit reminds to be seen (will an Apple employee be comfortable with putting a +1 on a Nokia Phone?). Another possible service to introduce along this line is to make Google Maps Navigation to not only guide drivers to their destination but also match it with potential passengers to split fuel cost. This service would add a strong social dimension because users will need to have a compelling Google profile and interactive with other users in order to convince other users that they are safe to ride with, while leveraging Google’s strength in smartphones, maps, and navigation. I discuss in greater detail of Google Maps Navigation with matching passenger service here, it’s a service that social, cheap to implement, potentially make millions and render Google closer to indispensability.

To Conclude
Larry Page’s goal of integrated all identities on a single Google username is inconsistent with user’s mentality of favoring walled identities. Facebook is very successful partly because it specializes almost exclusively in the private social identity space. To compete, Google should aim to dominate the professional identity space where Facebook cannot easily enter, instead of challenging Facebook straight on in the private identity space. As mention earlier Google should consider the following:

  • Buy Linkedin (Facebook estimated market capitalization is at US$50billion for its 600million users, Linkedin with 100million users should worth around US$8.3billion). (Update: it was recently valued at US$ 3 Billion)
  • Develop a job listing search capability, or buy Indeed.
  • Develop a user orientated human resource service capabilities/platform.
  • Develop an education service platform or buy/partner with Khan Academy.
  • Develop enterprise social networking solution
  • Promote Google ID as an interoperable ID for all career related activity online.

Some may think professional identity space may not generate as much “user signal” as private identity space in quantity, but it could possibly be better in terms of quality (salary information, university GPA, SAT scores, professional certificates and “life achievements” for example). As a supplementary strategy, Google can add a social aspect to its dominate services (search, maps) but be sure to build in mechanisms to protect the integrity of user’s professional identity.

*It is spelled “identity” in the source, its presume to be a typo and therefore corrected in my post.
**The precise meaning of “identity” can differ in different contexts. The three meanings that are relevant to this discussion are Online identification, username/password and whatever is recognizable through cookie sniffing; Personal identity, which is how the users seem themselves; And one’s projection, as in how one person wish to be perceived. Throughout this post “identity” is mostly used to encompass all three aspects, at times, however, it is used to mean one of the three aspects. The context where “identity” is used should make it plentiful clear, which is which.
***Not sure if Google can purchase a nonprofit organization, which Khan Academy is.


6 thoughts on “Strategies to Approach Google’s Social Service Challenge

  1. I think underlying the reason why Google got into social networking is because of “Display Advertising” money.

    People are now spending more time on Facebook sites than Google. Eg: asking friends on FB for the best sushi restaurant, or baby-raising advice, than searching on Google.

    FB is getting more and more of the Display Advertising money, which Google, from what I understand, is counting on as its next big business.

    Google’s got enough competition: Linkin, Yelp, Microsoft partnering with Bing, Facebook, Twitter, and whatever else.

    Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, in a NY Times article said, “It’s hard to see how we could end up as becoming a significant gaming or entertainment source. It’s much more likely that we would become an infrastructure for those sorts of things.”

    I’m interpret that as they don’t plan on being bit in social networking, but they definitely got their best people trying to figure out something.

    Looks like the biggest card Google holds right now is they can prioritize a Google profile page over a Facebook page in search results.

    I think Google’s strategy options is down to “making decisions they can’t know whether they will be right or wrong until everybody sees the consequences.” Which, happens all the time in life and business situations.

    In sum, good article! I can see you put a lot of work into it. I had to work on reading it. The three strategies sound solid.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

      There are lots of reasons for google to want to get into social services, display advertising is definitely one of them, along with collecting information (or signals) about user online behavior and establishing google as a platform (or infrastructure, as you quote Schmidt a saying) for online social interaction.

      Google can prioritize its site over competitors, but it may be seen by users to be acting against what google always claimed, which is sites are rank by algorithms for most relevant result and not commercial interest. If this happens, google will lose the trust of its users, arguably the most important asset.

      But these are not really what this post is about. This post is about why Larry’s state goal of integrating identities is not something desired by its users. And how Google can get into the social service gain without aliening its users.

  2. I think i am going to edit the post and replace the “social” in specified identity to “private”, its probably less confusing.

  3. Nice analysis. The post tries to propose ways to achieve the Google’s challenge from the CEO Larry Page. You discuss the meanings of identity and provide strategies to approach the integration. For me, there is a unclear inferences in the Challenge paragraph, the second sentence says

    …Integrating users relationships means your colleagues will be able to see who you socialize with when you are not working…

    This does not necessarily hold. Which means integration of identity (relationships) may not lead to mergence of identity. For example, a user can set the privacy policy in facabook so that his colleague won’t see his unsightly photos. It’s possible for the user to maintain multiple identities in a single account.

    • Yes, as you rightly point out that it is possible, but it raise the cost for the users to integrate identities.

      As you can see my post recognize such possibility in “2” of “The Strategies”. I argued that the idea of having an identity that have multiple representations is a bad strategy, as the mechanics can be messy and confusing to the user.

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