Google+ Challenges in a Facebook World

Google+ can be a contender in a social software world ruled by Facebook and Twitter, though it has a lot of obstacles to overcome to successfully compete for users' attention.

Since Google+ launched June 28, users lucky enough to get invites have been making mental and written checklists of comparisons between the new Google+ social network and the incumbents.

Yes, with the arrival of Google+ as a potentially big new network, Facebook and Twitter have become the incumbent to Google's challenger. And yet there is always a lot of uncertainty around a product in limited field test.

Google+ comparisons to Facebook may be more a curse than a blessing at a time when + needs to show how it offers consumers and businesses a meaty alternative to the world's top social network of 700 million-plus users.

There are subtle differences between + and Facebook. Robert Scoble is correct in noting Google+ is not "mommy friendly," meaning that it is limited to early invitees and a bit more tricky to use than the decidedly user-friendly Facebook.

Curating Circles, which as Scoble said can take hours, may prove to be a challenge for some users accustomed to broadcasting one-to-many on Facebook. Then again, Fred Wilson believes his dad might like Google+ for the Circles curation alone.

Altimeter Group founder Charlene Li said Google+ finally enables sharing among Google users with relevant context, something not available in Gmail, Google Voice and other applications.

However, Li told eWEEK that while Google has taken pains to give users more control over social circles, she is concerned that she has to link her private Gmail address to Google+ and that she can't stop people from adding her to circles. "They need to find that privacy button fast!"

Indeed, Google is improving a small privacy hole around its resharing feature.

Noting that Facebook Groups failed to catch on at Facebook, where they were bolted on last October, Forrester Research analyst Nate Elliott likes the notion that users get to form Circles from the start, providing a bottom up approach.

"This isn't a Facebook killer; instead, like Facebook's own Open Graph, it's another splinter in the social Web - making it ever easier for people to access their networks and social content on any Web site through any device. And that's exciting for users and Website owners," Elliott wrote.

IDC analyst Hadley Reynolds believes Circles aligns powerfully with how people actually relate and fills an online void.

Moreover, the Hangouts group video chat feature could be great for geographically extended families and business workgroups. He thinks that vast majority of Google's Gmail users will try Google+.

However, Reynolds said Facebook has the tremendous advantage of being the social home base of choice for most people, and almost everyone is reluctant to take the time and effort to create another profile, another set of connections, another destination to frequent and to maintain over time.

"We only have so much time to invest in the social Web. Any new entrant in the market - and in this segment, Google still is a newbie - will need something truly different and valuable to shake people out of their Facebook habit," Reynolds told eWEEK.

Moreover, Reynolds isn't sure Google has enough differentiating features to offer users that they can't already get from Facebook.

Reynolds' analog to this conundrum is the challenge Bing faces in trying to get people to try something other than Google search, which leads the U.S. market with 65 percent share and boasts 90 percent-plus of searchers in other countries.

IDC analyst Karsten Weide agreed with his colleague Reynolds that the only way for Google to "win" against Facebook is to have a more complete set of better, more compelling features than Facebook.

"The problem is, Facebook has been working on its feature set a lot longer than Google," Weide said in a research note July 1. "Mind you, Facebook's usefulness is still a far cry from social's original promise to ascend the Web to a whole new qualitative level of connectedness and utility. Still, it is the game to beat."