Will Google+ Ever Be Relevant for Small Businesses?

Google+ has been a controversial social media network since its launch last summer.

Alright, so maybe it’s not the same kind of controversy you might find in People magazine, but this is a controversy stemming from a big existential question: Will this thing work?

After the dismal failures of Google Wave and Buzz, Google+ seems — on the surface, at least — like a beacon of hope for the search engine giant. Internet metrics firm Experian Hitwise even found that Google+ had surpassed 49 million users in December 2011 — marking a 55% increase over the month before. In January, Google CEO Larry Page said that number had grown to 90 million.

But Google has been infamously cagey about how many of those users are actually active, and many people are still hesitant to join or adapt to the platform at all.

The big question, when it comes down to it, is this: Should small businesses and organizations bother paying attention to Google+ when Facebook has over 845 million users? We brought the question to Josh Mendelsohn, our senior product marketing manager, and Jonathan Mandell, our senior product manager of analytics.

So… Google+. What do you think? Why?

Josh: Tech-wise, it’s cool, with things like Hangouts, Gmail integration, Circles, etc. And the search benefits for businesses are very real. But I’m not sure Google+ is filling much of a market need other than tech insiders’ desire to move to the “next big thing.” Maybe there’s an opportunity for some businesses, but the fact is that I work at a technology company in the Northeast that’s focused on social media … and no one in my Circles posts much of anything.

Jonathan: I respectfully disagree. They have found a need that is not solved well today — engaging conversations. After Wave and Buzz, Google has made something that’s easy-to-use and focuses on engagement. They spent the first few months launching, learning, and iterating, and now are starting to pick up user interest. I’m really excited to see the new uses that people and businesses will find for Google+ in the coming months.

Is Google+ still growing, or has it already hit its peak growth rate?

Josh: That’s a good question.  As Jonathan states, lots of people have signed up for Google+.  But he leaves out that very few are actively using it I have a hard time believing that people are dying for a new social network like Google+, which is basically a Facebook/Twitter hybrid. One of the reasons that some sites, like Pinterest, seem to be getting so much more interest is because they fill a different need than any of the real big three (Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn).

Jonathan: Whether they’re active or not, user growth continues to accelerate. Google+ took a few months to get off the ground before going big. In the last few months we’ve seen Hangouts with the President and, more importantly, the Muppets! You don’t get bigger than the Muppets. If growth continues at this rate, there will be 400 million Google+ users by the end of the year. That’s a better growth rate than Twitter and Facebook.

Does the network appeal to the same audience that uses Facebook? Why or why not?

Josh: First of all, no one loves the Muppets more than me. Second, Google+ is entering a very different market than Facebook and Twitter entered. The latter two created the social media category. So, of course sign up rates for Google+ are faster. But most people use Facebook. One of the really interesting things about Facebook is that when it got really popular, it got a little less cool — because people’s parents started getting on it, too. Teenagers and social media geeks like me might be willing to rebuild their networks every year or two, but my mom and her friends are on Facebook and they’re going to stay there.

Jonathan: That’s why there’s  a different audience for Google+. It’s the people who don’t want to spend their day combing through posts about what Mom likes and what pictures of cats Mom finds cute and which Farmville character Mom just unlocked. Google+ users want to consume information, share content, and discuss it. Facebook has the focus of micro-interactions, such as Liking and Poking.

Is it fair to pit Google+ against Facebook or can the two networks coexist, like Twitter and Facebook?

Josh: Sure, they can co-exist as entities. The question is how actual money can be made — will Google+’s audience get large enough to warrant additional staffing and attention by businesses who pay the bills? And to Jonathan’s point: Is Google+ really more geared to information consumption than Twitter? I think, early on, Google+ had an opportunity to capture real marketing share. But by the time they rolled out business pages, which had less functionality than Facebook, they missed that window.

Jonathan: I’ll concede that it took Google five months to address the needs of small businesses, and that people won’t leave Facebook, but I envision a world where you will have a separation of the chit-chat with Facebook friends and the conversations about things you care about on Google+. There is a need for small businesses to engage with their customers in a show-and-tell manner, and Google+ is better for that.

Josh: I would argue that social sites are blurring the lines between work and personal connections, not the other way around, and that includes issues big and small, trivial and interesting.

What can Facebook learn from Google+ and what can Google+ learn from Facebook?

Josh: I think we’ve seen that already. Facebook enhanced their privacy settings and lists based on Google+’s Circles functionality, and they added video chat.

Google+ has tons it can learn from Facebook. Just for starters, Google+ developers shouldn’t overreact to user criticism. They should keep improving the user experience by keeping it free and active. And integrate with as many apps as possible to make it easy for others to make money on the platform.

The best places for Google+ to learn are the ones that didn’t quite make it, like Quora and Friendster, or Google Wave and Buzz. Because at the end of the day, active users is what matters the most.

The beauty of Facebook and Twitter is that, at this point, they’re self-sustaining. Sure, the friends who post about their kids 75 times a day are annoying, but they’re not the only ones posting all the time, either. The only person posting in my Google+ network like that is Mashable’s Pete Cashmore.

Jonathan: When Google+ hits critical mass it will be self-sustaining as well and it has a much easier way of filtering out the kid posts. Facebook could learn that people like it when it’s easy to create groups of people. I always found the implementation of lists in Facebook confusing, whereas Google got Circles right from the start. Google could learn that you need to release complete features that address a whole problem, rather than pieces of the problem. Like Josh said, the worst mistake Google+ made early on was launching business pages without the support for basic needs, like multiple page admins.

And both networks could still do a better job of addressing privacy concerns.

Josh: But how active are those privacy concerns among users?  They’re valid, but almost no one has stopped using Facebook because of them.

How should small businesses and organizations use Google+? Is it worth their time to manage a business page?

Josh: I think they should wait on it, unless they serve an audience that is active there already. If you have to choose one network, Facebook is the best bet. It’s better for showing brand personality. It’s more active. And it’s more flexible in the ways you can market your organization.

Jonathan: I know a small business owner’s time is really valuable and — even though it pains me to admit — they should still be taking advantage of Facebook first and foremost. But for businesses that have already mastered Facebook, they should see what Google+ can do.

For example, let’s say that Bob the Baker can host a Hangout where he has customers virtually dropping in to suggest a new cookie he should make. He can then post a video of himself making those cookies. He can start a conversation around pictures that he took at 4 a.m. when he gets up to go to the bakery. There are many possibilities and it will be exciting to see how people’s creativity takes over.

Google also indexes all of these posts and interactions, so when Bob posts, “I just made the world’s best chocolate chip cookie,” it will appear when people search for that term. This is even more powerful when people use the Search Plus Your World feature.

Bob is also likely to be the first bakery in his area that’s on Google+, which gives him the early adopter advantage. I can imagine that if you already use Google services, there are also a lot of opportunities for integration, with programs like Google Docs, Maps, Analytics, and YouTube.

Google + is here to stay … and it will grow. If you don’t like it you are basically saying you don’t like the Muppets. And to that I just have one thing to say: “Bork bork bork”!

Josh:  You sound more like “Wocka, Wocka, Wocka” to me!

What do you think? Are you currently using Google+ for business or personal reasons? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below. And if you’re a Google+ loyalist, connect with Constant Contact by visiting our Google+ page.

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