Social media showdown

Read time 9min 10sec

The social media world has been significantly shaken up following the unveiling of Google's answer to Facebook, Google+.

The throttling of the Facebook Friend Exporter, the expiry of Google's real-time search contract with Twitter, and LinkedIn's blocking of two professional networking apps on Facebook, all indicate that social networks are beginning to compete like never before.

Independent marketing analyst Chris Moerdyk says: “What we are seeing right now is the birth of an incredibly exciting social media era in which change will play a dominant role for some considerable time.

“There will be a continuous stream of innovation such as Google+ and an equally continuous stream of new social media products fostered by advances in technology and the remarkable amount of talent that the world is producing in this arena.

“Everyone in the social media space needs to continuously feel threatened not necessarily by new competitors, but by being left behind in a world that is changing so fast,” says Moerdyk.

Web strategist Eve Dmochowska says Facebook's key advantage over Google+ is its “inventory” of users. “They are going to have a tough time trying to hold on to that, while at the same time not limiting the users from interacting/benefiting from other symbiotic services.

“Shutting off APIs and building walled gardens is one way to go, but can be very problematic if your competitors are more open, and thus give their users a more rounded, free experience. It's a tough balance, and one with which Facebook and LinkedIn will continue to struggle.”

Dmochowska believes platforms such as LinkedIn and Twitter will continue to stay strong. “They have niched purpose and can happily coexist in the presence of a strong social network.

“It is Facebook and Google that are going to have to fight for engagement. If we measure the winner based on revenue from the network, my money is on Google.”

Dmochowska argues users will benefit from each platform's fight to continue to exist. “The one that succeeds best will do so because it is going to offer the users what the users want. Which can be summarised into two words: relevance and curation.”

Playing catch-up

Speaking at last week's press conference to announce Facebook's new group and video chat features, CEO Mark Zuckerberg was asked what he thought of Google+.

Zuckerberg responded diplomatically, saying he predicts that many companies that haven't traditionally been in the social networking game will still need to build up their social graph by integrating social aspects into their apps.

For the past five years, said Zuckerberg, Facebook has been doing just that, placing the network ahead of the curve. He added that it's the beginning of “launching season” for Facebook and a number of new features would be unveiled in the next few months.

There is no loyalty in social media - it's all about user experience.

Frost & Sullivan analyst, Birgitta Cederstrom

Despite Facebook having reached the 750 million-user mark, Zuckerberg said that Facebook no longer tracks its progress in terms of numbers of users. The metrics to watch now, according to Zuckerberg, are those that better reflect the idea of social as a platform - such as the number of items being shared.

Google executive chair Eric Schmidt recently said in a media conference that Google will be leaving the door open to more cooperation with social media giants Facebook and Twitter. According to Schmidt, it is still too early to say how well the new social network is doing, but that the sheer number of people clamoring for an invite was definitely positive.

An estimate by Ancestry.com founder Paul Allen says Google+ reached 10 million users on Tuesday, and the site has continued to see exponential growth. Allen says that according to his calculations, Google+ gained over 2.2 million users within 48 hours alone earlier this week.

Google+ incorporates a number of freakishly similar features to both Facebook and Twitter. The 'Stream' functions in the same way as Facebook's newsfeed, while the structure of Circles allows users to 'follow' others in the same way one does on Twitter.

The Google/Twitter real-time search contract expired last week, and according to Schmidt “despite lengthy discussion” the companies could not agree on terms. A statement from Google, however, includes plans for the company to incorporate the Twitter real-time search results into Google+.

Schmidt also revealed that discussions with Facebook to allow Google+ users to import Facebook friends have gone nowhere.

The Facebook Friend Exporter, a Google Chrome browser extension, suddenly saw a spike in activity after Google+ started accepting new users. The extension allowed users to import their Facebook friends into Google+ Circles in order to easily recreate their social graph on the new network.

Facebook cited a violation of its terms of service, and implemented a mechanism to stop the scraping of contacts from the site.

Schmidt envisages a future with multiple sources of online identity and multiple social networks.

The rapid decline of MySpace after the expansion of Facebook may, however, serve to refute the notion of the peaceful coexistence of social platforms.

No loyalty

Frost & Sullivan analyst Birgitta Cederstrom warns: “There is no loyalty in social media - it's all about user experience”.

According to Cederstrom, Google+ makes Facebook look outdated. “Google's site is more user-friendly, easy to click through and we believe that if anyone will take churn from Facebook it will be Google.

“Google also includes Twitter features, so again their beta launch offers a very sexy product in our mind.

“Social media is not just about being friends but also B2B and B2C. So in light of how people and companies in future will use social media like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, its all about creating the best technology platform, making it user-friendly, and offering best VAS [value-added service],” says Cederstrom.

Marketing consultant Jo Duxbury says it makes sense for the search giant to tap into social networking and that it has great potential. However, there remains the question of whether a new service is actually needed.

“I think users are already struggling to keep up with the social networks they already use - will they want to add another one?” asks Duxbury.

“I'd guess that Mark Zuckerberg is feeling pretty confident about Facebook's social media domination, but I doubt he is complacent. Facebook is very good at constantly refining, innovating and updating their platform, regardless of what their competitors are doing.

“Millions of people use Facebook daily, for something like 25 minutes - so they're unlikely to jump ship entirely unless Facebook does something to really annoy them.

“Whether users will be up for adopting yet another social network, and devoting time to it, remains to be seen,” says Duxbury.

Dmochowska says Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter and any other 'free' app online are all after one thing: engagement from the users.

“The more engagement there is, the more information (data) is left behind by the user, and the more time the app has to use that data to serve relevant ads and hope that they are clicked on. That is the basic business model of any social network.”

Google wasn't the first search engine, but that didn't stop them from becoming the number one search engine.

Web strategist, Eve Dmochowska

According to Dmochowska, to see who will emerge as “the winner” in this space, it will depend on which service is best able to collect data, and use it to improve user experience and to drive revenue.

“Google is the undisputed king of contextual advertising, but hasn't been strong on driving engagement with its social tools (except Gmail). Facebook and Twitter have the engagement, but their advertising platforms are weak when compared to Google's.

“Google wasn't the first search engine, but that didn't stop them from becoming the number one search engine. What matters in the end is user experience, and relevance to users. Google knows how important 'social' is. My bet is that they are going to get this one right.”

No network is an island

According to Moerdyk, the biggest danger in the social media space is the assumption that you can work in isolation to everything else.

“Trying to be exclusive in this space will make one vulnerable. Right now, LinkedIn is working well for business, but they need to be careful not to become complacent or to try and become too exclusive.”

LinkedIn recently blocked Facebook-based professional networking app, BranchOut, for trying to profit from pulling LinkedIn profile data into an enterprise recruiting search tool. Monster's BeKnown app has also been blocked by LinkedIn, after the app sent promotional messages through LinkedIn's API.

Moerdyk says: “I believe that on one hand consumers will find the choices daunting and might find it extremely challenging to, for example, move away from the daily and hourly even, interaction with a faithful friend called Twitter, to continue their conversations through the portals of a newcomer.

“I have seen comment by some businesses saying they are already inundated by social media options but I think the good news is that while the likes of Google+ and Facebook might be competing for space and attention, there are others at work developing applications that will allow all of these competitive elements to successfully interface.”

Moerdyk says he foresees consumers being able to consolidate their activities on dozens of different platforms into one convenient space. “We are doing it right now with our BlackBerrys and iPhones being able to consolidate all our conversations into one message centre.”

Duxbury says: “People are happy with Facebook and Twitter. Competition may help those platforms up their game - and hence provide a better user experience - but users are already tiring of the next big thing.

“I've seen this with colleagues on Facebook complaining about Branch Out - already we have LinkedIn, Plaxo and others - now I have to create a profile on Branch Out too and find all my friends and colleagues again? I don't have time for that!”

Duxbury says she would also love to see a tool that seamlessly and securely integrates existing social media platforms.

“Whoever cracks that and does it well will be onto a very good thing. There's more potential in bringing together what Facebook and Twitter do well than launching a new platform.”

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