Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Google+ Effect: Watch for Innovation Acceleration at Facebook and Twitter

For being two of the most innovative businesses of our generation, Facebook and Twitter were beginning to look a little complacent as of late. Watch for that to change now that Google+ has launched.

What new features has Facebook launched lately? After a slew of announcements last year (such as new groups, Facebook Places, improved privacy controls and more), little has happened with Facebook this year. The company recently launched a new chat bar and announced video chat, neither of which was a significant leap forward for the social network. Perhaps my memory (and Google search) is failing me and I am neglecting other exciting enhancements in 2011, but I think it's telling Facebook's own official timeline hasn't been updated for almost a year.

There are some obvious places for Facebook to improve, including one key feature now offered by Google+.  Google+ Circles permit users to direct a post to specific circles of friends--you can post a note to coworkers and omit high school buddies or vice versa. This sort of functionality has been in demand from Facebook for quite some time now. I've spoken to groups of college students who want to post messages to friends and not parents, and groups of adults who would like to filter their kids' posts off their walls. If I (and you) have been hearing about this desired feature, how did Facebook allow itself to be scooped by Google's new social networking tool?

And what about Facebook's search function? A friend recently told me his Facebook rep claimed Facebook is the second most popular search engine. Facebook has a search feature and people may use it frequently, but to call it a search engine and compare it to Bing and Yahoo is a stretch. Searching for fan pages or locations is difficult, and trying to find a particular individual among Facebook's 750 million users is darn near impossible. (My Twitter pal Ted Sindzinski recently pointed out that Facebook has hidden search-filtering capabilities--you can filter a search by location, education or workplace by clicking on the "People" link on the left of the search results page.)

ForeSee Results just announced their latest Customer Satisfaction Index ACSI report, which revealed Facebook has the lowest customer satisfaction among all measured companies. And sitting at the top of the customer satisfaction report was Facebook's new competitor, Google. Between lacking features and lingering doubt about privacy, Facebook has a greater vulnerability to competition than a company with 750 million customers ought.

Things at Twitter haven't been any better.  After launching an exciting new interface in September 2010,  there's been precious little innovation at the microblogging service. New features this year include minor enhancements such as a Follow button and slightly improved linksharing functionality. Founders Biz Stone and Ev Williams have taken their creative vision elsewhere, and Twitter now seems more focused on making money off advertising and commerce.

Twitter has room for improvement. Twitter's people search is no better than Facebook's, but Facebook has one killer feature that Twitter would be wise to duplicate. Facebook allows you to access a record of all the conversations and shares you've had with any of your friends; simply visit their Facebook page and click "See Friendship" on the upper right corner. Wouldn't it be helpful to access a similar record of all of the tweets and DMs you've traded with individuals over time?

I've heard people mention other desired upgrades for Twitter; for example, why can't Twitter provide a view that connects all of the replies made to a tweet into a threaded group conversation (such as is found on Google+) rather than just connecting the tweets exchanged between two individuals? And why must I visit Google to search my own Twitter stream--shouldn't the ability to search one's own tweets be a feature baked into Twitter?

It appears Facebook and Twitter became very comfortable with their place in the competitive landscape. That likely is changing now that some commentators are alternately calling Google+ either a Facebook killer or a Twitter killer.

Google+ won't replace either social networking tool soon, but that doesn't mean Twitter and Facebook have the luxury of time.  With Twitter reportedly being valued at $7 billion and Facebook's value pegged ten times greater, the stakes are high.  MySpace didn't innovate in the face of growing competition, and it went from a $580 million property when News Corporation acquired it in 2005 to a $35 million dollar asset when News Corp sold it last month.

Social network innovation is vital, or else we could soon add nouns such as Twittered or Facebooked beside MySpaced in our vocabulary.

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