Inside Google+

If the early returns keep up, Google might just have found its Facebook (and Twitter) killer. Google+ is expected to go past 10 million users this weekend, with former Overture founder Bill Gross predicting it will reach 100 million faster than any Web service in history. Those are quite a lot of expectations.

To hear Google tell it, the secret sauce of Google+ is that it learned from Facebook’s mistakes — and its own. Facebook has come under plenty of criticism for the real or perceived lack of control users have over the experience. That’s led to all manor of mini-crises, particularly in the realm of personal privacy. Google, meanwhile, has failed to get much traction in social networking, with Orkut a dud except for a couple markets, and the utter failure of Google Wave and Buzz.

“It was intentional for us to start off (Google+) with a ‘j’accuse’ in the face of Facebook, to say this is very different: the user has precision control over who can do what,” said Charles Warren, Google’s lead user experience designer on the project, in a conference call with journalists on Tuesday. “We’ve asked ‘what is the mental model of the type of person that is not sharing on social media, and asked ‘what are ways that we can feel more trustworthy to them. A lot of that has to do with how we handle the UI.”

Warren believes that users will join and share more if they see that their information is protected and siloed according to their preferences, similar to an email just going to the specific address that it is shared to.

According to a recent report on Google+ by Deutsche Bank, investors see Google’s 10 million subscribers and mostly positive reviews as evidence that the company can win consumers over to their vision of social media, while leveraging their status as the provider of two-thirds of online search to build-out a data-driven, social-based advertising ecosystem.

The challenge for Google+, which at first was getting subscribers, is now getting them to stay. A key component of that is consumer privacy. Although consumers may initially pile on to the platform, hiccups in consumer privacy may turn off Google’s newest and perhaps most valuable source of granular consumer insights.
“As we thought about principles for Google plus, the key principle, we called it privacy, but now it’s all about control,” Warren said. “So now you don’t just feel like (only) Google is protecting your privacy — which is sometimes a difficult choice for some people to put that in the hands of an organization. Our thought was well ‘let’s give you (the consumer) control, everywhere in the product all of the time.”
Giving consumers control may allay much of what has caused Facebook’s consistent backlash problem. And as the Deutsche Bank report states, “Google can be successful without necessarily ‘beating’ Facebook.”
“Because of that consumer control there were a lot of trade-offs,” said Warren. “When you look at the dashboards on the Google side, you guys can’t see it, it’s very dark. I can’t get into the statistics, but there’s at least another zero bigger amount of activity than the public thing.”
Warren also said that implementing features such as topic discovery based on user preferences and conversations is a “good idea,” and this may be a hint at Google’s evolution to an asymmetric social network that serves as the basis for the digital identity of millions of subscribers, although this is not an official “announcement of a product plan.”
“If you compare our roadmap ten days ago to now, it has completely turned on its head,” said Warren. “I think we avoided the issues we had with the Buzz launch by limiting it to the small group that we have on now. Luckily Google is a learning organization. (Buzz) was a sobering experience. All of this infrastructure sits on top of a goal,” said Warren. “That goal is to spark an explosion in sharing.”
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