By GABEY GOHbytz@thestar.com.my
How many is too many when it comes to social networks? With big boy Facebook leading the pack, can the fledgling Google+ network still make an impact?
IS THERE room for one more social media platform? If one were to ask Google with reference to their fledgling social network Google+, which was launched in June 2011, the technology giant's first response would be "we're not a social platform."
"The one thing to understand about Google+ is that it's a not a social destination the way other platforms are. It is a social layer that reaches across all of Google's products," said Ryan Hayward, Google+ product-marketing manager at Google Asia Pacific.
Google CEO Larry Page echoed the same message, stating that Google+ is about much more than the individual features themselves.
"It's also about building a meaningful relationship with users so that we can dramatically improve the services we offer," he said.
New figures revealed by the company during a recent earnings call showed Google+ had passed 90 million users globally as of January this year, demonstrating that the platform's attraction remains strong.
The number is a major bump up from the last reported figure of 40 million users in Q3 of last year. In addition, 60% of that number sign in daily while 80% sign in weekly.
When pitted against Facebook's 845 million active monthly users and Twitter's 100 million active users, it is still the new kid on the block but the rate of adoption remains impressive.
Google does not share user figures on a country-by-country basis, however Hayward said that across the Asia Pacific region, the network has experienced "strong growth."
But with individuals having to juggle their time (and content) between multiple platforms and accounts, where does or can Google+ fit in?
The engine of any social network is the people who populate and use it, with many on Google+ currently experimenting with what the service can offer.
"What we're seeing from users is that many are using it as a content discovery mechanism and community-building tool," said Hayward.
The interview with Tokyo-based Hayward was conducted via Google+ Hangouts, one of the platform's more unique features.
The group video chat feature allows anyone on the Web to potentially join a "Hangout" if they happen to possess its unique URL.
Hayward shared some recent usage cases for the feature, which has garnered much popularity with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and charitable endeavours.
For example, following Japan's tsunami disaster last year, popular musician Ryuichi Sakamoto hosted a Hangout with fans before going on stage to perform in a fund-raising charity concert.
In Thailand after the floods, Google+ Hangouts were used by a number of NGOs to help "put a face on the tragedy" and attract donations for disaster relief.
Many photographers have also migrated to the network, with Hayward pointing to the case of Trey Ratcliff, a well-known photo blogger who already had a big presence on Facebook. Ratcliff currently has 860,000 Google+ followers, up from 480,000 followers in December 2011.
The attraction for photographers, according to Hayward, is the wide range of photo-friendly tools such as a full-fledged photo editor and the unique experience the network offers for engaging in discussions and building communities.
Digital culture commentator Niki Cheong has also found Google+ conducive for discussions. "I find that Google+ is very discussion friendly so I follow a number of experts in my area of interest and follow their discussions more than anything," he said.
But for some Malaysians already plugged into the network, the role Google+ plays appears to be a secondary one.
Deborah Lee, deputy projects editor for a local magazine who joined the network in mid-2011, said she uses it mainly to post her views on fashion, beauty, lifestyle-related news and social awareness issues.
"Google+ is secondary as I primarily use Facebook and Twitter to air my views," said the 27-year-old.
Lee particularly likes the concept of Circles, which allows grouping people into different categories at one go.
"It makes it easier to control who sees your posts. It saves time and hassles as you don't have to manually select people one by one, unlike Facebook. With Twitter, it's either 'block' or 'allow' so it's very rigid," she said.
Joe Lee, better known online via his moniker klubbkiddkl, also sees Google+ serving a niche purpose as he mainly engages his followers on Twitter.
"Other social networking sites pale in comparison as a tool for reaching out. Facebook is merely a personal circle, while Google+ has become more of a platform for me to share viral videos with friends," explained the 36-year-old social media consultant and freelance journalist.
In the case of Cheong, Google+ is just another platform within the social media ecosystem that he functions within.
For him, Facebook is really about keeping in touch with friends, Twitter is for connecting with people he might not know and Google+ is about discussions.
"I compartmentalise my social media use. That's probably not the way these companies imagined the sites will be used, but I guess users can construct how they use it and that's how I use my networks," said Cheong.
When Google+ first launched, Google asked brands and publishers not to create pages for their own sites promising that an official solution would soon be made available.
Last November, Google+ Business Pages a feature similar to Facebook Pages for brands was officially launched and there are now over one million brand Pages on the network.
Much of the buzz over the service has been focused on the possibilities afforded to brands for reaching out and engaging its consumers.
Teoh Jui Hong, managing director of a local advertising and public relations agency noted that Google+ currently enjoys a romanticised idea of being a better channel but is not quite ready for the prime time.
"The real action is still with Facebook and to a certain extent Twitter. In almost all our existing campaigns, Facebook enjoys much higher participation and engagement from consumers. Statistics also show a large percentage of visitors to websites and e-commerce sites originate from Facebook," said Teoh.
He added that nice features like public video chats via the Hangouts feature is overshadowed by deficiencies such as the inability to assign multiple administrators to the Page. Such limitations make it difficult for any social media agency team to collaborate on a brand page.
Digital communications consultant David Lian offered a more positive take, noting that Google+ will be a great play for any business because of the way it integrates with everything Google has.
"I've just partnered with a friend to open a small side business selling boardgames. We could add our physical location on Google Maps, and create a Google+ page for the business though we've yet to populate it. Google links all these bits of information together and suddenly, your small business has a presence online," said Lian.
However, he admitted that the drawback right now is that Google+ simply doesn't have the critical mass that Facebook has already achieved.
"Ultimately, you want to be where people can find you. I've no doubt that if Google puts its muscle behind this, they can pull off something great," Lian added.
Win or lose?
Work is still being done on Google+, with continual improvements being made to the service.
Hayward noted that since its launch, over 200 new features, from minor tweaks to new functions, have been introduced.
However the jury is still out on whether Google+ will be a resounding success.
According to Kelvin Lim, digital strategist for a public relations firm, Google+ is on paper, a remarkable game changer.
"It should have revolutionised tailored messaging through Circles and induce massive shifts in search through +1 integration, but that didn't happen. The issue with Google+ isn't functional or mechanical - it's emotional," said Lim.
He added that coupled with the fact that Facebook and Twitter offers much greater results for brands and businesses, it's going to be challenging for Google to attract its competitors' critical mass over when what they're using right now works.
Cheong notes that search has always been Google's strength, so it makes sense that it would capitalise on that within its social strategy as well.
"I think Social Search has a great future and if it works out, Plus will prove to be a dominant force. If Google can refine how Social Search works, I would probably end up using it more just to have a better search experience," he said.
It remains a numbers game with many watching Google+ and its growth rates as the main indicator of viability.
The people behind it would rather not speculate as shown by CEO Page's response to a question about growth prediction.
"Oh my goodness. I won't try to predict that but we're very excited about the growth we've had, and we're certainly seeing a tremendous number of people being added every day."
For those already participating in the network, the waiting game continues as illustrated by Lian: "I think Google+ is a great tool. I only wish more of my friends would use it."