Recently, Google has begun to incorporate a new ‘Social Media’ feature into their Search Results: Google Posts.
Currently limited to U.S. Presidential Candidates (but meant to roll out more widely, eventually, to other public figures and organizations), Google Posts allows Users to craft Social-style ‘Posts’ that appear directly in Google Search Results. Search for Hillary Clinton, for example, and you’ll see something like the results shown in the image below:
Clicking or tapping one of these Posts will take you to a full page for the Post at its own URL on posts.google.com, i.e. posts.google.com/share/PostURL, which will look something like the Post in the image below:
Clicking or tapping on the User Profile Pic takes you to a dedicated Page for their Google Posts at a URL on posts.google.com, i.e. posts.google.com/share/UserURL, which will look something like the Post in the image below:
Clicking or tapping the Share button on any Post brings up the following set of sharing options:
This (or very similar) sharing options… Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Email, or Copy the URL… are becoming standard across most new Google products these days, including Google Photos, Google (Video) Hangouts, and even the ‘New Google+‘, and as I’ve explained elsewhere is part of a new link-based sharing strategy by the Mountain View company, following on their move to end mandatory Google+ registration for all Google account users.
You may notice something about this ‘Social’ product: it’s not really Social. You can’t Comment or Reply to a Google Post; there is no Google Post Social Network to join and no sign-up required to view or Share them; you can only ‘Share’ these Posts as a link, so there is no equivalent of ‘Retweeting’ a Google Post; and there is no way to ‘Follow’ a Google Post User or their Posts (you either have to Search for them on Google, or navigate directly to their Google Posts or Google Post Pages manually to see them).
I believe this may be the best approach Google can take to tackling the portion of the Social Media market this new product addresses, for a number of reasons. Before explaining that, however, let’s take a step back to briefly consider how Google’s earlier experiments with ‘Social Search’ have helped set the stage and determine the ultimate form Google Posts would take, and how those lessons can add up to success where those previous efforts have not been overwhelmingly successful.
Google’s first notable foray into Social Search, Google Realtime Search, launched in 2009 in partnership with Twitter, and fell apart in 2011 after Twitter later rescinded access to their ‘Firehose’. The causes of this failure have been debated, and likely both sides had concerns: Google probably didn’t want to pay for Firehose access when they were already agreeing to share advertising revenue with the Little Blue Bird, and Twitter was probably worried they’d lose control of their own distribution channels (i.e. people would ‘Google First’ when they wanted to find stuff on Twitter) and that Google might use data gathered through the partnership to boost Google+, which launched in Beta the same year Realtime Search folded.
Early in 2012, in part in an attempt to partially salvage their efforts on Realtime Search, as well as an attempt to boost their own social networking strategy, Google debuted ‘Search Plus Your World‘ (SPYW), later called simply ‘Personalized Search’. Among the personalization signals it incorporated, SPYW heavily (too heavily, some would say) incorporated Google+ Photos, Posts, People, and Pages into Search Results.
The deep integration of Google+ into Google Search took another huge step later in 2012, when the company unveiled Google+ Local, a product combining Google Places, Google+, and Zagat Ratings (from their Zagat acquisition) into one monolithic Local-Review-Social product. The idea appears to have been that the rise of Local Search as a unique vertical on Google Search would help ‘lift up’ their Social efforts against Facebook, which has been successful getting a lot of businesses to create Pages and keep those Pages active.
In addition to giving Pages and People First Class Social Integration in Google Search (e.g. the ability to Follow them on Google+ straight from Search Results), and a ranking boost for links to their Google+ Posts, Google+ Local also brought with it a direct integration of Social Posts into Search results: ‘Recent Posts’, drawn from Google+ Pages or Profiles, began to surface in special areas of the Search Results, including in the Local Knowledge Panel and Brand Panels. You can see examples of what this used to look like here. Eventually this was joined by +Post Ads, a new AdWords unit for embedding Google+ Posts directly into Google ads.
The plan didn’t work out as expected. Deep integration of Google+ into Search Results didn’t help Google+ overtake Facebook or even get most businesses to maintain an active presence on their Google+ Pages. While Google+ Posts still seem to enjoy some ranking power in Personalized Search under specific conditions (e.g. you Follow and have recently engaged with Google+ Posts by the person or page relevant to your Search query), links to Google+ Posts are much less likely to appear nowadays in Search Results; Google+ Local has been discontinued in favor of Google My Business (and Google has even made it easier for people and businesses to remove unused and unwanted Google+ accounts); and Recent Posts from Google+ Pages and Profiles no longer appear in Search at all, anywhere. +Post Ads, however, still exist.
Last year, Google and Twitter finally negotiated a new deal, which while not as ambitious as Realtime Search has nonetheless seen Google reincorporating Twitter into Social Search. Google News sometimes displays news articles which are trending on Twitter, along with continuing to show articles Trending on Google+ (one of the few prominent integrations between Google+ and other Google products to survive), but more importantly, Google has begun to show embedded Tweets directly in Search Results.
For example, a Search for Hillary Clinton displays the following embedded Tweets from her official Twitter account:
The new Google-Twitter Search deal looks like a success for both parties: Google gets more Social content integrated into Search, and from a network that derives a significant amount of its traffic from visits by non-members (who, nonetheless, may want to know who Kanye or Drumpf just insulted in his latest Tweet by reading it themselves) and is almost synonymous with Social ‘Trends’. Twitter, meanwhile, gets even more referral traffic from members and non-members alike from Google Search, and now advertisers can even buy Promoted Tweets through Google’s DoubleClick Bid Manager and measure the effectiveness of their Tweets.
On the other hand, this still means Google isn’t a major player in Social Search on its own. Twitter largely powers their Social Search feature as of this moment, as they did in 2011 before the deal fell apart, which has to bring up bad memories and concerns of a repeat; Google has to split some advertising revenue with Twitter nowadays; and they have to refer even more of their traffic to a Social Network they don’t own.
Enter Google Posts. Compare Hillary Clinton’s Google Posts to her embedded Tweets from the same Search Results, and right away you’ll see the similarity: they both appear as a row of embedded, squarish Posts with prominent placement. Google Posts are, in fact, more reminiscent of Google’s Tweet integration than their own defunct Google+ Posts integration. Did I mention that Hillary Clinton’s Google Posts currently appear right above her Tweets? Coincidence? I think not.
In fact, I think Google Posts, whatever they may owe to the inspiration provided by earlier Google+ integrations, are clearly more of a direct response to the success of embedded Tweets in Google Search Results, and the rise of Tweets as a Social Advertising unit. Seeing the newfound success of their Social Search efforts, the Googlers can’t help but have realized the opportunity staring them right in the face.
Consider this: Twitter is, in many ways, less popular as a Social Network than as a one-way broadcasting platform for public figures. Celebrities, Journalists, Politicians, and more take to Twitter to tell the world what they’re thinking, what they’re doing, what their ideas are, who they’re feuding with or sleeping with, whose brand they’re wearing, and more. Public figures love Twitter for this purpose, far more than they like Facebook or any other Social Network in fact (though Instagram puts up a fight in this area).
On the other hand, many public figures hate Twitter, and it isn’t at all unusual to hear of famous people deleting their Twitter accounts, because however powerful Twitter may be as a broadcasting tool, it is also a Social Network, and one very poorly designed for conversation at that. Let an army of online trolls get the slightest bug up their backsides, and public figures on Twitter quickly become targets of vicious Tweeters who quickly overwhelm and drown out any attempt at civility. Even if it really is, in many cases, a relative handful of losers commanding dozens of automated ‘sock puppet accounts’ creating that atmosphere, Twitter has yet to solve the problem by hook or by crook.
Notice that Google Posts don’t allow for any Comments or Replies, and while they can be shared to any network or as a link, there is no Google Posts Social Network. Google itself describes Google Posts as a ‘podium’, suggesting broadcasting to an audience rather than engaging with fans and followers. They’re stylistically ‘Social’, but in practice are more like ‘microblog posts’ for a blog with no Commenting system. Where else has the term ‘microblogging’ gained purchase? On Twitter, of course.
For public figures wishing to Post a ‘Social’ message to their audiences and to the world, Google Posts gives them the benefits of Twitter without any of the drawbacks, and it doesn’t even amount to ‘one more Social Network’ to manage, either. (The latter was especially problematic for Google+; with Twitter and Facebook already established as popular networks, many people wondered why they needed ‘yet another Social Network’, and Google+ never persuaded enough people of its unique value as a network.)
It is worth noting that Twitter, in its wet dreams, doesn’t get as many monthly visitors or as much monthly traffic as Google Search, a fact which in itself is at the root of the new deal with Google. This answers the obvious question public figures must ask themselves about any new ‘Social’ platform: does it have enough users to warrant the effort to use it? Since ‘it’, in this case, is Google Search with its more than one billion monthly users, the answer is an emphatic, ‘Yes!’.
In addition to the benefit of being a one-way, low-commitment alternative to Twitter, you’ll notice there are subtle but important differences in the way Google Posts are embedded in Search Results:
Google Posts contain embedded image thumbnails directly in Search Results; embedded Tweets, meanwhile, do not display image thumbnails, instead displaying only the Twitter URL of the image (i.e. pic.twitter.com/ImageURL). Posts containing images perform better on every single Social Network worth mentioning, and there is no obvious reason to doubt the same advantage will accrue to Google Posts over embedded Tweets.
Embedded Share Buttons
Google Posts in Google Search Results display a prominent Share button, giving the user options to Share to Social Networks, Email, or to copy the link to the Post and then share it directly to whomever they want, however they want. Embedded Tweets in Google Search Results, on the other hand, don’t even display a Retweet button, let alone additional Sharing options.
Overall, the Google Posts section of Search Results for Hillary Clinton just looks nicer than the section for her Tweets. The former is denoted by a Profile Picture of Hillary Clinton with a signature Verification check mark (so you know it is her official account), and the embeds themselves are slightly larger, cleaner looking, and seem more inviting of engagement (with their aforementioned images, buttons, and even timestamps).
It may also be the case, depending on the terms of their deal, that Google may have agreed with Twitter not to launch a Social Networking feature that directly competes with the embedded Tweets feature, and if so then an additional benefit to the lack of a true ‘Social Network’ attached to these Posts means they can compete with Twitter without breaking such an agreement. Admittedly this is pure speculation, and Google may never have made any such promises (although even then, they might wish to avoid the appearance of competing directly with a partner, for the sake of their working relationship with each other).
If Google Posts succeed as a way for public figures, and perhaps organizations and other future users, to broadcast a ‘Social’ Post directly on Google Search, without even having to worry about managing ‘yet another Social Network’, it could nip away at one of Twitter’s major appeals, and open the door for Google to develop a new Social revenue stream charging to ‘Promote’ Posts.
Imagine, for example, if the next controversial thing Donald Drumpf says isn’t via Tweet, but via a Google Post; imagine the next Charlie Sheen-style online celebrity meltdown coming by way of Tiger Blooded Google Posts instead of Adonis DNA’d Tweets; imagine if the next feud between famous singers plays out via angry back-and-forth Google Posts instead of dueling Tweets; etc… Even barring anything quite as dramatic as the previous examples, Google Posts could still dominate the eyeballs and engagement of their own Search users, weakening Twitter’s appeal to celebrities, brands, and others as a means of reaching their own audiences in the process.
What is perhaps most interesting about all of this, however, is how it reflects Google returning to its core strengths and moving away from the approach pursued during the ‘Google+ is Google 2.0’ years. From 2011 to 2015, Google threw their weight behind an effort to build a billion-user Social ecosystem to compete with Facebook by integrating Google+ into all Google products and forcing Google users to sign up for Google+ in order to create an account for Gmail, YouTube, and other Google products. In this regard, they failed; a lot of people grudgingly signed-up for those Google+ accounts, but never used the Google+ Social network (or used it very little), and some others resisted to the end where otherwise they might gladly have signed up for a Google account (hence the recent separation of Google accounts from Google+).
That approach, however, was at odds with what made them a success in other areas: encouraging a more ‘open’ web and more ‘open’ sharing. YouTube, a company Google acquired, didn’t become popular by matching the ‘Social Graph’ of Facebook, where everyone joined YouTube and then followed all their Friends and Family. Rather, the ultimate key to their success was the ability to share links to Public YouTube videos easily to other networks, via email, and other channels; until recent times, in fact, the majority of YouTube video views came from shares and embeds of YouTube videos on other Social Networks, Websites, and Blogs. Even Private YouTube videos can optionally be shared to anyone via a link. YouTube attracts huge viewership from non YouTube members because of this openness.
Facebook got over a billion people to sign up and ‘Friend’ everyone they knew, so it’s easy to share with your connections through any part of Facebook, making them one gigantic ‘walled garden’ of the world wide web, almost a mini web of its own. But this approach did not succeed for Google, or anyone else for that matter besides Facebook, and is unlikely to be reproduced in the foreseeable future.
Twitter is little better than Facebook in this regard, but has far fewer users and far less loyalty, and thus makes a much softer target for Google to go after, as well as offering the best chance to prove whether a more ‘open’ Social strategy can beat a ‘walled garden’. If this manages even to dent Twitter’s dominance, even among a subset of users, even just slightly, then it may suggest that even the undisputed Social Network Champion Facebook could be ‘beat’, without creating a massive new ‘walled garden’ in the process to replace it.
Back to its earliest days, Google won markets and thrived through the openness of cyberspace and open source software. In many cases, in fact, they did this through the deliberate rejection of the ‘closed’ alternatives of their rivals in those same markets, and against the loud cries of those who protested that Google could never make a lot of money if they kept giving stuff away freely and openly.
Google Posts, with their account and network agnosticism encouraging viewers to share these Posts anywhere and everywhere they wish to (or just view them on Google itself), without signing up for anything at all, is in that regard a quintessentially ‘Googley’ approach to Social Media, one which perhaps suits them far better than the walled garden approach ever did.