For Google, A New ‘Social’ Strategy Is Emerging

Published on Author Eli Fennell
Google Saved Images
Google Is Going All-In On Collections with Saved Image Searches

Conventional wisdom says that Google doesn’t ‘get’ social media. The implied lesson is that leaders in one market often lack the core competence to be competitive in new markets, and the Search Giant Google is one of them compared with Social Demigod Facebook.

Looking over their history, it would be easy to see truth in this idea. Google Buzz and Google Wave died inglorious deaths after barely learning to crawl. Google Orkut earned an audience in a couple of nations, notably Brazil and India, but after eventually ceding the #1 Spot in the Brazilian social media landscape to Facebook, and with the company pushing Google+, its doom came quietly in the end. Google Reader was a sort of ‘social network’, and some would argue successful, as much as an RSS Feed based social network can be, but it was never mainstream, and died loudly but suddenly.

Then there’s Google+, about which it can be fairly said that its original purpose has failed. Google+ was supposed to unite all Google users under a single account and social identity system. The idea of a single Google account was an unwavering success, but its connection to the social network of the same name failed to capture the majority of the more than one billion Google users globally.

Google has moved to deintegrate Google+ from other properties (YouTube, Gmail, etc…) and to replace the social account system with a unified Google account system unconnected to any social network. They’ve even moved towards a link based sharing system that allows first class sharing to competing social networks, or anywhere else, often with no need for recipients to sign up for or install anything.

Google+ survives as an Interest Network, built around Collections (themed groups of Posts by a user, which can be Followed or Unfollowed selectively with or without Following their Google+ Profile) and Communities. It may flourish in that space, with some help from developing markets where it is surprisingly popular, but that doesn’t fix their basic problem with social.

Nor does YouTube solve their social problem. YouTube is more of a passive video streaming source for most users than an active, socially engaging platform; many of its visitors don’t even use an account, and YouTube Comment Sections are rarely upheld as model forums of social interaction (being kind). It generates enough direct traffic to shrug off some degree of competition from Facebook and other social networks, not because ‘all your friends are there’, but because all the cool videos and video creators are there (and anyways, the cost to operate such a service limits the competition).

Google Photos, which has arguably been a huge and growing success since splitting out from Google+ (where most of its features were born), doesn’t really solve the problem, either, since it isn’t really a social network but rather more of a social photo sharing tool. Its killer features are Search and Assistant, the latter of which helps create or automatically creates new types of images and Collections (Albums, Stories, Video Creations, etc…) from your photo and video reel. Photos and Collections can be shared anywhere, including via social networks and other apps, and even to nonusers.

While all of these are clearly part of a new direction for the company, perhaps nothing cements this quite like yesterday’s announcement by Google of a new way to save and ‘organize’ Google Image Search results. Currently available only on mobile browsers in the U.S., the new feature will allow users to tap a Star to save an image from Google Image Search for later.

These saved images can also be organized into Collections, and filtered (e.g. images of hair could be filtered by length) for easier Searching later.

Update: 12/02/2015

The day after I posted this article, Google renamed the Collections feature in Google Images. It is now called Tags. Why this was done, I don’t know, and no official announcement has been made regarding the change, it appears to have been done quietly and hastily. Below, you can see the Old and New images from the official announcement, showing the change from Collections to Tags


image 2 tags snowmen

Update: 3/22/2016

A new update to Google Photos has rebranded the feature previously known as Photo Collections as Albums, while merging the features previously known as Albums and Stories into a single, improved ‘Smarter Albums’ feature. With this update, Collections are now a brand unique to Google+, as they were originally.

Are these ‘signals’ that I was reading too much into it, a sign that they realized their naming conventions had given away too much, or a simple rebranding strategy to avoid confusion? Or some combination of possibilities, or something else entirely? I don’t know, but I believe my broader points still apply regarding Google’s new play for social media relevance. The rest of the original article, unedited, resumes below.

In fact, easier Searching for something you’ve Searched for before is exactly how the official announcement portrayed the value of the feature. Allowing, as I will, that it serves this goal well enough, it also smacks as decidedly similar to Pinterest, while also being like a Google Photos for Google Image Search.

And if that weren’t enough to raise eyebrows, consider the triple correspondence we’re now seeing: Google+ Collections, Google Photos Collections, Google Image Collections. Pointing out the pattern would be almost too easy to bother doing.

So, does this solve their social problem? No… but it does go a long way to filling in the bigger picture of how they will. Google’s social problem can be described succinctly as follows: they need to generate traffic and revenue on scale from social media users, while learning more about those users for retargeting, while also growing their amount of users and traffic in general, all on a billion user (or more; preferably more) scale. Unfortunately, building a Facebook Killer hasn’t worked, and knocking off any smaller social rival is almost not worth it (might as well buy Twitter than spend resources to crush it).

Google has proved they can get most of their users to create accounts, and some of them to sign on to use their social tools (especially YouTube, with the provisos I’ve already mentioned), and they can increase their reach while doing all of this, but they can’t force the majority of their users to sign on to a new social network, apparently, and trying to do so actually seems to hinder the adoption of their products. Other than Twitter, there is no network with enough users even worth buying that might be for sale, so they can’t buy into the social market, either.

Google is a company that shines when it scales: a billion YouTube users, a billion Gmail users, a billion Search users. At smaller scales, they often lack that certain ‘Googley Magic’ that gets people to change email providers, subscribe to channels, use their phones as personal assistants. You know who else scales? Facebook. But Facebook is also where people increasingly find content, apps, and other things ‘beyond the walls’ of the network.

So, while Google+ may have ‘failed’ as the social layer of Google, a new one with the same vision appears to be replacing it, only this one is going to be based on users across the service not only sharing individual pieces of content, but also building and sharing Collections of various types, with the help of Google’s Cloud, AI, and Algorithms (their core strengths).

These ‘Collections’ can include Social Interests, Photographs, Image Searches, Videos, and more, all of which can be shared anywhere, to any network, app, or service which supports displaying web links, i.e. virtually all of them. (Note: Sharing options do not appear to be a feature of Google Saved Images… at least, not yet.)

Whenever possible, Google is even making it easy to share your stuff with people who don’t even have Google accounts or have the right app installed on their device. Google Photos Shared Albums, a feature announced at the 2015 Nexus Event and expected to launch by the end of this year, even allows nonusers to collaborate on photo albums and/or subscribe for Notifications, without sign up or install.

From the perspective of solving their problem, and while there are still missing pieces of the picture, this general direction does begin to address it. As YouTube has taught them for over a decade, sometimes you don’t have to get people signed up to your network or service, at least not right away, you just have to get people visiting, consuming, and sharing. What do people share online? Do they share Interests, Photos and Videos, cool Images they find online? You bet they do. Tn fact, they already share a lot of these with some help from Google, so this new direction plays right into their core strengths.

The loneliest social tools are the ones your friends and family and everyone else you care about aren’t using, and one of the most common reasons they aren’t using them is because they don’t have an account, don’t want to set one up, and don’t want to download yet another app (in fact, studies have shown that average mobile users add no new apps per month; literally, not one new app on average).

The loneliest social tools are the ones everyone you care about aren't using. Click To Tweet

So, if you can’t get to billion user scale by forcing people to sign up and download stuff (or by being preinstalled everywhere), don’t try: instead, make great tools for hosting, making, and sharing highly shareable content, and make it as easy for people to share and find as possible.

Let the experience of trying the product become the sales pitch for signing up later, in other words, for when your visitors decide that they want to create and share their own content and Collections, and even if they never do join up, then they can still be a valuable and targetable source of traffic. Facebook is a huge driver of referral traffic on the web, but referral traffic by its nature has to go somewhere else. Facebook, most of all, would prefer this not be the case, and is pushing to host as much video, photo, news and other content on site as possible, but social traffic will usually go where the best content is found, on or off the network.

Collections, in particular, will help boost sharing from Google services to other networks and services by allowing users to share groups of related content, like their Social Interests from Google+, their Photo Albums from Google Photos, or their Image Searches from Google Images. Have you ever started playing a YouTube video, only to find out that it was actually part of a Playlist, so you ended up binge watching multiple videos instead of just one? The same principle applies here: chunks of content all-at-once rather than discrete bite sizes.

Google doesn’t necessarily need everyone signed up, if the people who are signed up can share abundantly with anyone (and, where appropriate, if those people can then share to other people who can also share to others, and on and on down the line).

And while we may have seen the death of social integration across Google properties, I think perhaps we haven’t seen the end of clever interoperability. It is easy enough to see how, for example, an Image Search Collection might become sharable as a Google Photos Album, or a ready made Google+ Collection, luring you from one access point in the Google ecosystem to the next to the next. In fact, taken together, Google is clearly moving to transform all of their products and services into narrowly focused (‘app like’) social sharing tools whose overlap suggests future interoperability:

Google+ Collections for Sharing Interests
Google Photos Collections for Sharing Photos
Google Image Collections for Sharing Web Images (‘Google Photos’ for the web beyond ‘the cloud’)
YouTube Playlists for Sharing Videos

While it would probably be a stretch to say that this approach is better for Google financially than Killing Facebook would have been, successful businesses survive technological transformation by adapting to the new mediums. If you can’t own all of the users of social media, as Facebook can virtually claim to have done, there is another way to profit from it, and one that many companies, especially big media companies, have pursued to great success: owning as much of those users’ time consuming content from social media as possible. If you can’t be the source of social media, be the destination.

If you can't be the source of social media, be the destination.Click To Tweet

Looked at from this perspective, no single Google ‘social’ product will have to succeed at the scale of a billion users (though one already does, YouTube, and others might eventually), if they can own a broad enough swath of narrow slices of sharing and consumption across networks and channels. They’ve also made moves to integrate Twitter, index the Facebook app, and other moves meant to bring more of the social web into the open web, so they’re not depending entirely on their own resources.

Rather than building out a full blown social competitor to Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or anything else, Google seems instead to have chosen the path that has traditionally worked best for them: tapping the full scale of the open web, the intelligence and feedback of the user, and the power of good old fashioned hyperlinks to deliver solutions beyond the ‘walled gardens’ and ‘portals’ of the internet. For Google, the open web remains their best ally.

For Google, the open web remains their best ally.Click To Tweet

Most of the content we consume on social media does, after all, begin life somewhere else, whether in a photo reel on our phones, a Search result, or another social network, before we ever Share it. The more of that content which drives traffic and users back to Google (from their perspective), the better. All things considered, their users also seem to prefer the open approach.