Facebook has had a de facto monopoly on social platforms over the last couple of years, and until the launch of Google+ the main other options for developers have been mobile — and those require a distinct set of product and marketing skills.
So you’d expect social developers, especially companies wanting to diversify beyond Facebook on the web, to be pretty interested in what happens with G+. Even so, we’ve been surprised by the optimism among companies we’re talking to, and they’re not just having wishful thoughts. The specific reasons: Google+ is a respectable product, it’s grown quickly, there are clear social communication channels like Streams where developers could promote discovery and engagement, and the transaction fee is likely to be quite low.
Here’s a look at where G+ is so far, followed by details about what a platform launch might mean.
Good Product and Solid Early Traffic Growth — What’s Next?
The initial set of features in G+ accomplished what at least a noticeable subset of internet users have been wanting — Facebook features without the Facebook part. Between the Stream, Circles, the integration with other Google products, and complementary launches like Hangouts, users can experience many of the positive social interactions and information-sharing dynamics that Facebook has defined. The initial result has been impressive traffic growth, with G+ reaching 25 million, according to comScore — and as every would-be platform company knows, the first step to attracting developers is having users to connect them to.
It’s clear that users who love Google and/or hate Facebook are on it in force. And that audience, in and of itself, ensures some sort of longevity for the service. The big unanswered question is how quickly Google+ is going to be adopted by mainstream users, especially considering that the majority of the US and many other countries are already on Facebook. Already, some third-party measurement firms are showing traffic slowdowns (although that data is qualified by the fact that Google has not yet fully opened registration to all users).
Still, the results so far are much better than its past efforts. Its OpenSocial platform standard was widely adopted by other Facebook rivals, but didn’t manage to create big alternative platforms. Buzz, an earlier social product meant to take on Facebook, had a variety of privacy issues and never fully got off the ground.
Going forward, Google is pushing big marketing campaigns and developing tighter integrations with its other products — one can imagine a version of G+ being quite useful for companies using Google Apps, who want a Yammer-style interface for sharing and discussing changes to Google Docs, emails, calendars, etc. All of those efforts should drive many more users.
But what will keep people coming back and socializing? Google still can’t duplicate anything like what Facebook did — launching quietly to closed groups of real-world young people, building on key viral features like Photos — that feature got college students to share their party photos with each other (and tag each other) back in 2006, and that type of voyeurism has been a key ingredient in Facebook’s growth, as evidenced by the massive ongoing popularity of its Photos product.
While Google has been integrating various other content properties, like its Picasa photo service, it doesn’t have the same set of compelling social features that Facebook has offered. And that’s where developers hope a social platform could come in, providing consistently entertaining activities for at least a portion of the user base.
What a G+ Developer Platform Might Look Like
Google has made a few official statements about a developer platform, but there’s plenty of evidence about what the company is up to.
It has been hiring product managers to do things like “Drive feature requirements for Google’’s gaming platform.”
It has a site up for developers interested in working on its platform to sign up for more information.
In an official guide to G+, a now-deleted line informed users that they could find game information in a dedicated “Games stream” that has not yet launched. This stream would presumably be similar to Facebook’s Games and Apps Requests bars on the left-hand column of its user home page, and serve the dual purpose of helping gamers play while keeping the inevitable social spam from polluting the Streams of everyone else.
Google+ source code includes some language about how Game invites might be phrased.
On top of product evidence, Google has also been busy hiring and acquiring gaming and platform talent. The biggest is Slide, a top social app developer on MySpace and Facebook in past years. After selling to Google for up to $228 million a year ago, some of its executives have taken on expanded roles building Google social products, while others are continuing to maintain games like SuperPoke Pets. Having seen all the pros and cons of platform live from a developer perspective, Slide’s team could help shape a platform that strikes the right balance for users and developers.
Other acquisitions include payments service provider Jambool, which more or less got forced off the Facebook platform when Facebook made Credits the exclusive paid currency, and is now helping to lead Google’s new in-app web payments product. Pricing, in contrast to Credits’ 30%, is apparently just 5% of the transaction revenue.
And, Google has also been investing in social gaming companies. At some point it put a significant amount of money into Zynga, although it didn’t confirm reports on the matter until it listed Google as one of its investors in its S-1 filing (which it was legally obligated to do). Earlier this year, it also led a big new round in hardcore social game developer Kabam. Now, both investments could be purely about making money on any platform, but an obvious line of thinking is that these two companies might be launch partners when the platform goes live.
Conclusion: Can Games Make G+ Entertaining?
Developers have regularly gotten hopeful about social platform alternatives to Facebook, but so far the main platform alternatives to emerge have been the not-very-social iOS and Android mobile platforms.
The early growth of G+, the long-term means that Google has to make it keep growing, and in particular the social and low-fee environment, look far more promising than anything else that social developers have seen in years. Some developers have told us that Facebook has been feeling the same way, and has gotten noticeably more responsive to developer issues in recent weeks (although to be fair, Facebook has been trying to improve developer relations since last year).
Expect Google to work hard to woo developers, and expect developers to experiment with G+ more intensely than they have been elsewhere.