Google needs a place where people can easily congregate and communicate. A place that's as easy to understand and use as Google.com. A place that people "like."
1. Stickier Audience = More Ad Dollars
2. Social Signals = Better Search Results
Stick With Me
According to the Online Publishers Association, people spend less than one hour per month searching. That equates to just 5% of the total time people spent online in 2009.
Meanwhile, over 25% of people's time online is spent on "communications," with another 13% going to "community." That's nearly eight hours per month congregating and communicating.
The largest single chunk of time spent is currently with "content" at nearly seven hours, representing over 40% of all online activity. And the remaining 13% goes to "commerce."
Now, we all know that those numbers don't reflect the breakdown of online ad dollars, as search gets the lion's share -- 47% in 2009, per the IAB. However, it does speak to the fact that the mindset of searchers is largely commercial -- and, therefore, search is an excellent aperture for advertisers to reach customers and prospects in "buy-mode."
Accordingly, search is largely the domain of direct-response advertisers or advertisers looking to drive direct response, while those with branding goals prefer to align with stickier platforms and properties where they can embed their brands and generate more interaction and engagement than a mere text ad affords.
Even the Google Display Network (aka Google Content Network) with its graphic ads is mostly comprised of DR campaigns, due to limitations with standard ad units. Brand advertisers generally want to go "beyond the banner" and create high-impact programs inclusive of content integration and the like.
This leaves Google with few options in terms of attracting brand dollars...
1. Create content. Google has repeatedly made it clear it's not in the content business for fear of alienating the publishers it relies on for the majority of its revenue.
2. Make YouTube more brand-safe. Google's been working on this for a while with moderate success but, because the Big G's not in the content development business, it can't offer the branded entertainment executions like the Funny Or Dies of the world.
3. Build out communications and community platforms. These areas seem ripe for Google's picking -- especially when you consider that, like search, congregating and communicating are really matters of relevance and efficiency, two areas where Google excels.
These days, we have too many friends and too little time. We clamor for tools that help us organize our various relationships in a meaningful (read: relevant) way so that we can more efficiently stay in touch with old friends and make new ones.
But managing our relationships is difficult enough without having to worry about privacy (Buzz), complicated communication streams (Wave), and unpopular hangouts (Orkut -- unless you live in Brazil or India).
Just as Google won out in search with its "Keep It Simple, Stupid" solution, so too, will the winner in social be the one with that's able to plant the best K.I.S.S. And, right now, that's Facebook (despite the privacy missteps), although Twitter seems to be doing pretty well with its more bare-bones, stripped-down approach to social networking.
With Facebook (and Twitter) already having such a huge head start in terms of generating usage and becoming a daily habit, it's unlikely Google will win with a me-too approach, even if it is able to make online social networks more like real-life social networks. In other words, Google needs to do more than just give people a place to hang out, share, and connect.
There must be some aspect of entertainment. Methinks Google gets this. Case in point, Google's recent launch of YouTube Leanback, a format that lets you consume video linearly and view uploads from your friends.
Another key entertainment feature is gaming. The rise of social gaming is fast and furious, and one of the reasons Facebook has become so sticky. Just ask any FarmVille player who schedules his/her days around harvesting crops, and you'll know what I mean. Methinks Google gets this. Case in point, Google's reported investment of over $100 million in Zynga -- that would be the FarmVille guys -- as it prepares to launch Google Games.
Another huge benefit of Google creating a robust social network is that it will give the Big G critical signals to inform its search algorithm. As discussed in my last column, "Link vs. Like and the Future of Web Ranking, every "like" of a Web page via Facebook is a vote for the credibility of that page in much the same way a link is.
But "likes" go one step further than links because they are easier for everyday people to activate -- as opposed to the links that Google indexes, which are largely controlled by Webmasters -- and they include social graph data that can be used for personalizing results based on what "people like you" find most useful.
Let's also recall that social networks are a huge origin of search activity. Twitter, for example, is supposedly doing 800 million queries a day (although that number is a bit misleading). A Google-owned social network could be another strong source of query volume.
Launching a comprehensive social network would be a major step for Google towards generating more brand advertising dollars and improving its search platform. The only question is if Google Me will succeed. Social networks are only as good as the number of people using them. For Google Me to win out, it must be easy to use, respect privacy, and add value beyond mere connecting and communicating.
If Google can check these boxes, it will have consumers and brand advertisers alike Googling themselves in more ways than ever.