Google recently announced +1, the search giant’s answer to the increasingly ubiquitous Facebook Like button. Understandably, many bloggers and analysts cited Google’s previous social failures and predicted a similar failure for +1. Among the many complaints about +1 was the supposed absurdity of liking — or rather, +1-ing — search results that haven’t yet been clicked and read. I’ll admit that I also doubted the efficacy of that approach shortly after Google’s official +1 announcement.
But instead of adding my knee-jerk reaction to mix on the day of +1’s launch, I decided to follow some advice that I once received from a wine maker in Napa. While his words were meant to apply to wine, they came to mind as I made a conscious decision to think about Google’s +1 strategy for a few days. His advice? “Let it breathe.”
And so I did. I waited, and mulled over Google’s motivations. And upon further reflection, I have come to view Google’s +1 release through a more strategic lens than a real-time, same-day reaction would have permitted. What I’ve come to realize over these past week is that many of the initial reactions to +1 are oversimplified. From a strategic standpoint, I see enormous potential for Google +1 for several reasons:
First, +1 is a lead generation vehicle
Google’s +1 feature is embedded as a button next to each Google search result. These +1 icons are used to signal to people who are signed into their Google accounts that their connections (email contacts, chat friends) have approved of links provided via search. They also provide searchers with a mechanism to endorse links, provided again that they have created and are signed into their Google accounts. But that’s the catch: You can’t +1 a search result without having an account with Google. Effectively, then, +1 serves to convert otherwise anonymous (well, relatively anonymous, anyway) web searchers into account holders to whom Google can market its products and services.
Second, +1 will provide a new data source to protect Google’s flagship search asset
Numerous critics, such as Berkeley professor Vivek Wadwha, have become increasingly critical of the quality of Google’s search results. Meanwhile, content farms such as Demand Media have earned billions of dollars in revenues via the production of low quality articles that rank well by exploiting Google’s search algorithm. Consequently, a common viewpoint of many web users is that Google has been cashing in on spam at the expense of its search engine users.
Google has made strides in addressing this challenge by altering its search algorithm to punish content farms. However, despite Google’s claim that +1s will not initially impact search results, +1 feedback will undoubtedly reach a tipping point whereupon crowd sourced data can be used to improve search quality. Simply put, Google can reverse the perceived declined in search quality by serving up results that your respected contacts have previously vetted. Once +1 clicks have achieved a relevant total volume, you can expect to see increasingly-personalized search results.
Third, +1 clicks will help Google serve more relevant advertisements
In 2010, Google’s search advertising revenues surged over 20% to $25.4 billion. Imagine how much that growth rate can accelerate if search users would just tell Google which ads they’d like to receive? Well, +1 enables this, both implicitly and explicitly.
At launch, +1 buttons are active for both search results and advertisements. While only a small percentage of people are likely to +1 advertisements (explicit ad feedback), this model is not without precedent and relative success. On the implicit end, Google can target individual interests and fine-tune the ads that are served to a specific individual by using data from his/her +1 history. This approach mimics Facebook’s ad model, and it represents a mechanism for improving Google’s AdSense platform (and — Bingo — increasing advertising revenues).
Fourth, +1 will expand to other digital assets, increasing its utility
Criticism of Google +1 as a mechanism for just ranking search results is shortsighted. The +1 system will almost certainly expand beyond search and into Google’s other digital assets. It’s likely that we’ll all be able to +1 videos and curated channel content from YouTube, songs from Google’s soon-to-be released music streaming service, apps from Google Apps or the Android Market, businesses and other places via Hotpot, and so on. And soon we’ll all see +1 buttons embedded across websites alongside icons from Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
The expansion of +1 across Google entities and the greater web will serve to not only increase its utility for web surfers, but also to help Google draw more complete profiles of the consumers who are being targeted for advertisements. You might even say that +1 is the next logical step toward a full-blown social network from Google — but I’ll leave that hypothesis for another blog post.
Summary: +1 is a strategic move that reinforces Google’s core
Google may be investing in self-driving cars and planning YouTube channels to compete with traditional television networks, but one thing is clear: Search is Google’s Castle, Everything Else is a Moat. For Google, success is not defined as an end result where +1 buttons become as pervasive as Facebook’s social plugins. Instead, +1 will augment Google’s core competency: providing the best search results available and placing ads that complement the search experience. For the reasons outlined above, +1 will enable that mission. Deriding the “version 1.0″ of +1 is a shortsighted view that fails to take into account Google’s long-term goals.