Is Google Analytics Reverse-Engineering Facebook?

In all the excitement over comScore and Nielsen's recent entries into Facebook analytics, you may have overlooked a much sleepier social metrics announcement from earlier in the summer. Google Analytics now measures social interactions, too. Now, with Google Analytics reported as the most widely used analytics package on earth, it's very much worth considering what Google Analytics social features might mean for the industry.

The new measurement tools, announced at the end of June, largely appear in the framework of how Google's new social plays-Google+ and Google +1-impact interactions with websites. What kinds of search traffic arrive to your site via Google+1's social search suggestions? Find out through Google Analytics. How many people share your site's content through Google's new Facebook competitor, Google+? Find that out through Google Analytics, too.

But it's what's buried within the announcement that's the most interesting feature. There's a Social Plug-in that enables a full dashboard showing how people share a site's content across Facebook and Twitter. For Facebook, that means "likes" and "sends;" for Twitter, it's tweets.

That's very exciting news for 360° social measurement. But it also raises a few questions.

Here's the thing. Unlike comScore and Nielsen -- which work solely in measurement Google has a few other lines that run alongside its Analytics business (you've probably noticed this). One of Google's other lines of businesses is its social sites -- with Google+ taking the ranks as the fastest-growing social network in digital history. And Google+ isn't just a side project for Google. Google's social strategy is critical for the company (internal memos have said as much).

It isn't surprising that Google should be so concerned about social. Pundits have long argued that social networking may ultimately rival search as the digital gateway -- as social networkers turn to friends instead of search engines to find answers , and social "likes" help websites shape the way we find new experiences without searching. Those predictions are starting to pan out -- with social networks surpassing Google as referral sources, at least for certain kinds of media.

In other words, if Google doesn't gain a serious footing in social, its position in the market (which still rests primarily on search) could erode entirely -- leaving Google in the thoroughly exciting, but also completely unenviable position of needing to create the most popular social network on earth, largely from scratch.

For Google, a business that doesn't move a finger without data, the plan forward undoubtedly involves gathering as much information as possible about what ingredients go into creating a popular social network. It stands to reason that this would mean gathering as much intelligence as possible, quickly, about Facebook and Twitter.  Information about how users share information across the social networks would be particularly valuable for figuring out how to monetize a channel that's already become the greatest viral marketing opportunity ever made.

And so Google has enlisted  the user base of the most-used analytics platform on earth, to gather data about Google's two biggest rivals in the social space -- and to put that data into Google hands. That seems odd.

So has Google gone amiss? In all honesty, probably not. You really can't offer a social analytics platform without including Twitter and Facebook in the mix. Besides, "Chinese Walls" and business silos tend to be a lot stronger than marketplace theories contend. More likely than not, this isn't  a case of competitive snooping; a more likely explanation is honesty on Google's part that Google+ isn't the only social network in town.

But the connections are still worth considering. With the emergence of new channels, on the one hand, and very strong players already in existence on the other, there's the constant risk that organic product growth can suddenly create the appearance of conflict of interest. As the industry evolves, it's an issue that we all have to think about deeply.

I'd love if readers -- and Googlers in particular -- would share their own thoughts about how we in data-driven media can prevent conflicts from springing up. If you'd like to continue the conversation, please comment below; I'm also @billwise.

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1 comment about "Is Google Analytics Reverse-Engineering Facebook? ".
  1. Kirby Winfield from Dwellable , August 9, 2011 at 2:45 p.m.

    Great piece Bill. In my experience Google maintains their Chinese Walls fiercely. Spending $20M/year on AdWords? Don't complain to Matt Cutts about getting dinged by an update to organic algos. Spending $1M on Doubleclick? Don't expect your ADX tag certification to get rubber stamped. They do this in large part via strict delineation between P&L's - the guy who owns ad server revenue doesn't get squat from his clients' spend on AdWords, so there's no motivation to fragment efforts or generate leads cross business.