Google To Decode Social Networks

Google has finally decided to unlock social media for marketers, which I think is mighty nice of them. I mean, one would think that buying YouTube and signing a nearly billion dollar deal with MySpace would have got their juices going some time ago, but I am sure they had other things going on. (Now removing tongue from cheek.) It is interesting that Business Week's Heather Green is breaking news of an "influence rank" calculation being developed by Google (that Google won't comment on) in her piece "Making Social Networks Profitable,"  because, well -- it's Google.

The article highlights a Google patent application that hints at attempts by the search giant to develop a system for measuring people's influence within their online social networks. Of course every player in the social space has been trying to figure out the best way to map this, it's just that Google's past success and current resources are reason to believe. But before you start thinking it's only a matter of time before GOOG tops $1,000, there are a couple of hurdles.



The first issue is the easy one: How accurate can an online influence rank really be? Intuitively, we think that activity = influence. But someone with thousands of social network "friends" she actually knows very little has a very different influence than one connected to ten friends she knows very well. Heck, two people that both have thousands of friends can have very different influence. Even more confusing is that the same person might influence two different friends in two different ways. People just don't connect online in the same way they connect in the real world.

What does this mean for marketers? That someone with online influence (getting people to click on links, and consume online content) might not be able to get people to take action in the real world (start trends, encourage purchases).

Truthfully, though, the issue of developing an accurate influence rank can be solved, and if anyone can solve it, my money is on Google, or MicroBook if Ballmer and Zuckerberg decide to combine forces, or some small upstart that takes a totally fresh (and later obvious) approach to this massive business problem. One way or another, we will all have a solid influence rank for social media some day, just as Heather Green suggests.

The harder issue facing would-be saviors of social networks and marketers is what to do with people's influence rank once it can be measured. Just because my influence over my peers can be measured, doesn't mean marketers gain access to that influence. Think about it for a second. Marketers already know people have influence over their peers. Achieving word-of-mouth is the holy grail of marketing. Measuring people's influence is a great first step, but making use of that data means rethinking the role of marketers and their agencies.

If you want people to influence others in your favor, stop trying to "use" consumers' influence and start using social media to earn their support. How people use their influence is up to them. Use social media to listen, to create better campaigns, to deliver your marketing messaging  -- and, most of all, to deliver better products. As I said, not the typical role of the agency, but Mediabrands CEO Nick Brien, for one, thinks agencies are coming around to this view in 2009.   What do you think?

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