Google+, the social network of the American web giant is, in fact, a lot more than a social network. Larry Page, the web giant's CEO, describes it as “the social backbone” of a company whose ambition is simple, if not the least bit modest: to control the Internet.
“If Google+ was just a social network, we would have to say that with 500 million members — just half the number that Facebook has, which is huge — it's a failure," writes Guardian journalist Charles Arthur. And that's exactly what most of the world thinks about Google+ — that it's a social network. And so the hasty conclusion, given lame level of engagement relative to Facebook, is that it's a failure.
But perhaps that's a flawed view. “You cannot compare Facebook and Google+ because the strategy behind Google's social network is global," says Philippe Torres, director of studies at the Atelier of BNP-Paribas specializing in new technologies. Sure, if you judged Google+ by Facebook's criteria, it might be deemed a failure, but membership numbers don't represent the whole story, he says. “We have to note that the growth of Google’s social network is by far better than Facebook’s during the same period," Torres says. In two years of existence, Google+ claims to have 500 million members, of which 135 million are active users.
Beyond that, Google+ is only a small part of the Mountain View, California company's empire, says Nate Elliot, a senior analyst at Forrester. “Add YouTube (800 million users), Gmail (500 million accounts) and Gtalk, and that's more than one billion people who exist in the Google universe." Elliot says it doesn't matter whether Google’s social network is all that relevant. “In order to be on Gmail, you have to be on Google+, which increases the user base. All it takes for Google to be satisfied is that the users are active from time to time.”
Arthur notes that even if a user does nothing, the Google+ account tracks a user from the moment of login to a Google account. “On Google Maps, it is Google+ that you have to use in order to save (or share) a location," Arthur says. "And for other functionalities, you must go through your Google+ account."
The case of YouTube is even more shocking: “Of course, you can YouTube without your Google+ account, but if you want to do something on the website — like commenting, for example — you will have to log in," Arthur says. The same is true for Google Drive (Google's “cloud computing” document service), Google Shopping etc. "Google+ wants you to log in, in order to see everything and save everything."
The strategy could scare off paranoid users. “The goal of Google+ is to unify all the services of Google in an identification system, a unique log in, that can be traced on the Internet through every website that uses Google ads, Google sign-in or even Google Analytics," says blogger Ben Thompson. “All the functionalities of Google+ — or of YouTube or Maps or Gmail, or any other service — are traps with the intention to make sure you are connected to Google at any moment.”
Google likes your ‘likes’
Benedict Evans of Enders Analysis says that “the objective of Google isn’t just to index the whole web, but also to track what the users do." Torres agrees. “The battle that is being played out between Facebook and Google on this point is massive," he says. "Two philosophies are going head to head: the inheritor of the web 1.0 and the leader of the web 2.0. At the end, the winner will have control of the entire web. For now, Google is winning.”
It might seem that Facebook has the market cornered on "affinity data," or what users like. Mark Zuckerberg’s social network practically invented the "like" and the collection of Internet users’ preferences. But Elliot notes that Google also a massive quantity of data and will replace Facebook thanks to its analytical tools.
“While Facebook struggles with the problem of privacy, Google will be able to gain the upper hand,” he says. Perhaps the proof is in the numbers: Google generated $50 billion in 2012 revenue, $40 billion of it from advertising. And though 2.7 billion Facebook "likes" are being registered every day, its revenue during the same period was just $4 billion.
"Google understands the world is changing," Elliot says. The goal is not to know what the user wants to do, but what he likes. Journalist Charles Arthur characterizes Google+ in a single word: Matrix. Yes, like in the movie. The goal? That you stay inside the Matrix, forever.