Perhaps it’s the recent launch ofGoogle+ Pages for brands. Perhaps it’s because Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg called Google+ a “little version of Facebook.” Or perhaps people just enjoy battles between tech titans. Whatever the reason, I’ve been asked at least three times in the past week about whether Google+, Google’s social networking service, will ever beat Facebook.
Facebook is the undisputed champion of social networking, with more than 800 million active users. It’s deeply interwoven with the Web — its social plug-ins are now part of millions of websites, and an entire ecosystem of applications relies on Facebook for social functions. If Google’s aim with Google+ was to topple Facebook, that’s an audacious goal. Based on the current growth rates of both companies, it wouldn’t seem to be a bet you could win.
Toppling Facebook becomes more challenging as that site continues to keep pace — adding new features along with users. Friend circles, a distinctive feature of Google+ at launch, were added to Facebook in the following months, removing a major incentive to switch. What’s more, Facebook’s launch of the “Subscribe” feature — which lets you follow public updates from a user — further erodes the advantages of using a service like Google+ or Twitter.
Google didn’t promote Google+ as a “Facebook killer,” however. Far from it. The search giant instead explained that it was building a “social layer” to bind its services together. That promise is now being delivered upon: A Google+ activity bar now runs across the top of Google Docs, Google Search, Gmail and virtually every other Google service.
The real value of Google+ is a very small feature indeed: The +1 button. This little widget — Google’s answer to the Facebook Like button — is an acknowledgment that links are no longer the only way to rank websites. Instead, people are increasingly discovering content through their friends on social networks. For Google, a company that ranks Web content based on the links between pages, that’s a very scary change that undermines the organization’s core search-engine service.
So what did Google do? It launched a social service and put these buttons on almost all of its pages to start collecting some of those social signals. Now those little +1 votes being cast around the Web are starting to change the order of Google’s search results, helping to keep Google in line with the social trend. If Google’s aim was to create its own source of social voting data and avoid a nightmarish outcome — being forced to rank your search results based solely on your Facebook connections — then, by its own standards, Google+ is not a failure.
Can Google win the social war outright? My guess is no. Nonetheless, Google could still make a big move to increase the odds: It could acquire Twitter, gaining ownership of one of the biggest databases of social signals on the Internet.
Meanwhile, “social” is not the only battle raging in technology circles. There’s also the fight for the mobile Web: Mobile operating systems and app stores are perhaps a bigger opportunity than the social trend. And while Google is the market leader in mobile operating systems, Facebook merely has a few apps (albeit the most popular ones). So Facebook, the big blue social network, may be winning a battle with Google+ but is losing the mobile war with Google at large.
Can Google+ beat Facebook? I think the better question might be “Is Google better off with Google+?”