Will Google Plus be the world’s largest social network?

From my vantage point, I’m seeing engagement down quite a bit at Twitter, and up at Google Plus. And since the number of “active” users on Twitter currently approximately matches the number of new Google Plus users, Google Plus appears to only have to continue what it is already doing to succeed at becoming a social network on a par with Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.

Google itself has many more active users than any other network does.  Besides users of its search engine, think of other Google products (many of which are inherently social) like YouTube, Gmail, Blogger, Maps, Documents, Picasa, Orkut, etc. (Realize that email is in some ways the world’s biggest social network.)

G+ only needs to have some integration into its existing products to become huge. People don’t have to leave other social networks for Google to grow huge, virtually overnight. While it clearly is a new social network, it can also simply be used as a social feature added to everything else Google does. And the vast majority of internet users use one of more of Google’s products.

And don’t overlook that Google can grow by buying other networks, even if it means overpaying a lot for them. Google can afford it. They’ve lost some bids in recent years, and have surely learned from the experience when to buy and what to pay.

But how much of the current success is just people trying out Google Plus? Every day that people keep using Google Plus actively is a sign it will succeed. How many days do we need before we can declare that people will keep using Google Plus? I think we’re already there. To succeed, I believe all Google Plus has to do at this point is not fail. And yet they could be the cause of their own failure, such as by suspending accounts without good reason and alienating users, for example.

Finally, realize that neither Twitter or Facebook are cool. What’s cool is what people do with Twitter or Facebook. Millions of people are already declaring that they’re doing cool things with G+, so If they can manage simply not to alienate users by breaking things or changing things in frustrating ways, I think G+ will continue to be a huge, huge success.

Who will be the biggest loser: Twitter or Facebook?

Look at it this way: If G+ had been available years ago, would Twitter have ever grown so large? Quite probably not. Almost all of the people that made Twitter grow have tried Google Plus already—and are declaring that they will keep using it if G+ doesn’t somehow screw it up. The early adopters of G+ are mostly not people migrating from Facebook, however. That’s because G+ and Twitter are both anyone-to-anyone connectors. Facebook is more for immediate circles of friends.

Also, Google has an incredible infrastructure and team around the world to handle growth, fix things and build things right from the beginning. It’s a huge, huge advantage. It wasn’t clear years ago what the best ways to build things were. A lot of what works best, infrastructure-wise, has been determined, and Google is poised to take advantage of that. No social network ever started knowing how to scale things for hundreds of millions of users. Google Plus is the first. Facebook, Twitter and Google have for many years been labs to figure out what the problems are, and what works. Solutions have been found, and now Google can benefit.

Twitter is the most likely loser in a head-to-head battle of “is it broken?”

Twitter knows it needs to upgrade parts of its infrastructure, but this is like swapping out the engine on a jet in flight. Even so, I believe they plan to do it. But in the meantime, they are stuck trying to make things the least bad, instead of the most good. While Google Plus will have technical problems, its very unlikely to build something that is already broken.

Twitter had no choice, since they never knew what they were building from day to day. It wasn’t completely their fault—no one knew what Twitter would be good for, and no one knew how popular it would be, or how fast it would grow. Facebook had a clearer, steadier growth path, and they’ve had more time to get things right, infrastructure-wise.

Missing Tweets

What kinds of problems does Twitter have? Besides downtime, the worst, in my opinion, is that Twitter won’t show you all tweets. (While Twitter’s “firehose” does show all tweets, it isn’t available free.) While Twitter tries to talk about this so as to minimize its importance, I have found in tests that I miss tweets every single day. Of course, as @TweetSmarter, I can get hundreds a day. And many of them show up eventually. (That’s how I can tell I missed them in the first place, by comparing.) But lots of folks trying out hashtag chats have found the same things. Some people and some tweets just don’t show up. It’s like duct taping the mouths of some participants in a group discussion.

Twitter Spam

I believe the second-worst problem is spam. The problem is that spam is an arms race, where anything Twitter does can cause spammers to change their tactics.

For example, if you receive a tweet from someone you don’t follow with nothing but a link, 99+ of the time it’s spam. But what if Twitter blocked these? Then spammers could just add one word with the link. If Twitter blocked those, then spammers could add two words, and so on. And should you be blocked from sending a tweet with a just a link? That would block lots of legitimate tweets. Read more about the problems of misidentifying spam here.

Twitter currently blocks links to phishing sites as soon as they identify them. But why not identify the language and then block the tweet completely? Since hackers inevitably use the same “is this you in this pic?” kind of tweets for awhile, it would reduce spam. Of course, spammers would then just mix up their language.

So in some ways, it’s better for Twitter to let spammy tweets through. It causes users to mark them as spam, for example, which helps Twitter determine which accounts to suspend. And Twitter suspends obvious spam accounts very quickly. The problem is that thousands are created *or waiting to be activated) all the time, and so the total spam is a problem.

One idea is to let new users know that they will be receiving a spam test tweet from an unnamed account. They would have to reply to a tweet of a picture with a description of what is in the picture, for example. This would make it VERY hard to run an automated spam account, because spammers would have to have a human read all incoming tweets to find and respond to the the test tweet.

What about the influencers?

If the kinds of people and entities that are most active and influential on social networking sites find Google Plus working for them, Google Plus will succeed, and other sites will suffer. We can guess whether this will happen by asking three questions:

  1. Does the G+welcome them? Do its features make it possible for them to much of what they did elsewhere? Do they gain useful features they don’t have elsewhere?
  2. Does the G+ welcome their community? Will their community follow or join them there?
  3. What will they lose in spending time on G+ that they normally would have spent elsewhere?

Is G+ as easy and useful as Twitter and Facebook for influencers?

Influencers have already declared they like Google Plus, so the answer is pretty clear regardless of specific feature sets. And Google will be making business/non-personal accounts available soon so as to have a product for all influencers.

Do influencers really lose a lot, feature-wise, at Google Plus so far? Mostly not—and Google has said many features are on the way, and it will be changing in response to feedback. But since Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus are all changing rapidly, it’s somewhat too soon to compare features. However, in the end, Google is very likely to have the richest feature set of all, by over time integrating all their current tools. Also, Google Plus is free to take what works best from Facebook and Twitter.

Will people follow influencers to Google Plus?

Yes, many will. People are already marveling at the rate of engagement on Google Plus. Longtime bloggers with lots of commenters are getting anywhere from double to 100 times the number of comments by publishing on Google Plus instead of on their blog. Sure, one reason is simply that a lot of people are testing Google Plus, but when it’s working so well, the “test” becomes the new normal.

Also, influencers are already finding that they are following people to G+, not the other way around. When your community moves, you have to listen. And G+ will experience huge growth when it comes out of invitation-only.

What is lost by spending time on Google Plus?

This is not as important a question as it seems. Once tools like TweetDeck let you manage Google Plus from the same interface you use for everything else, time isn’t as big an issue. And this will happen soon. There are a already a variety of tools to manage content across G+ and other networks.

If you’ve decided you need a social networking presence, it’s going to be hard to avoid also being on Google Plus. And there is hardly an influencer of any kind anywhere in the world that doesn’t have a social networking presence of some kind, a Twitter account or Facebook page (or a Chinese equivalent).

Summary

Google Plus has been tested, and has already succeeded. They are unlikely to screw up by breaking things. Because of their huge userbase and by satisfying millions of early users, huge growth is virtually assured.

I predict once they get beyond their current invite-only state and integrate Google Plus into all Google products, if people don’t find reasons to avoid it, G+ will have more active users than Facebook by the end of 2012.

What do you think? You can leave a comment on the Google Plus version of this post here.

 

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