Google’s social strategy

It is widely believed that Facebook presents a significant competitive threat to Google. Google itself seems to believe this – Larry Page recently said that all employees would have their bonuses tied to the success of Google’s social strategy.

Why does Facebook present a threat to Google?  A few reasons:

– The utility of Google’s core product – web search – depends on the web remaining fragmented and crawlable.  Facebook has become the primary place web users spend their time and create content, and is mostly closed to Google’s crawlers.

– Facebook controls a large percentage of ad impressions and will likely launch an off-Facebook.com display ad network to compete directly with Google’s display ad business (built from its $3.1B acquisition DoubleClick). It is generally thought that display ads will become a larger portion of online advertising spend (versus direct response text link ads) as more brand advertising moves online.

– There are many other “wildcard” risks – e.g. Facebook competing with Google (and Apple, Paypal etc) in payments, Facebook gaining power on mobile (threatening Android), and the possibility of a greater share of internet intent harvesting happening on Facebook through not-yet-released features like a search and/or shopping engine.

When going after Facebook, Google has at least three key strategic choices to make:

Strategic choice #1: Should Google try to make social networking commoditized or new profit center? (For more about what I mean by this, please see this post on Google’s overall strategy and these posts on “commoditizing the complement” herehere and here).

The advantage of creating a new social networking profit center is obvious: if you win, you make lots of money. The advantage of commoditizing social networking is that although you forgo the potential direct profits, you open up a wider range of pricing and product options. For example:

– When you try to commoditize a product, you can offer a product for free that other companies charge for. This is what Google did with Android vs iOS and Google Apps vs Microsoft Office. Of course, making social networking free to users won’t work since Facebook doesn’t directly charge users (I say “directly” because they make money off advertising & payment commissions, among other ways). However reducing the cost to zero for 3rd-party developers like Zynga who have to pay Facebook large commissions would entice them toward a Google platform (note that, not coincidentally, Google invested $100M in Zynga).

– Interoperate / embrace open standards – Normals don’t care whether a product uses open standards, but by interoperating with other social networks, messaging systems, check-in services, etc., Google could encourage 3rd-party developers to build on their platform. If Google chose, say, RSS for their messaging system, it would already work with tens of thousands of existing tools and websites and would be readily embraced by hackers in the open source community. The web itself (http/html) and email (smtp) are famous examples where the choice to open them unleashed huge waves of innovation and (eventually) killed off closed competitors like AOL.

Strategic choice #2: How should Google tie its new social products into its existing products?

Besides a mountain of cash ($30B net, generating $10B more per year), Google has many existing assets on top of which to build. Google Buzz tried to build off of the “implicit social network” of Gmail contacts, which hasn’t seemed to work so far and raised privacy concerns.

Google’s recent mini-launch of its “+1″ button seems to be good use of the strategy known as “anchoring”. Google is apparently trying to create a federated network where websites embed +1 buttons  the way they embed Facebook’s Like button except the +1 button would be a signal into Google’s organic ranking algorithm (as an aside, this is where Gmail becomes useful as having millions of logged in users makes spamming +1 buttons much harder). Websites care a lot about their Google organic search rankings (which is why, for example, helping websites improve their rankings is multibillion-dollar industry).  A button that improved search rankings would likely get prominent placement by many websites. Making +1 appealing to users is another story.  The user value is much clearer for the Facebook Like and Twitter Tweet buttons – you send the link to your friends/followers. Providing value to users in addition to websites is a good reason for Google to acquire Twitter (something I think is inevitable if Google is serious about social – see below).

Finally, Android and YouTube are intriguing potential anchors for a social strategy. I’ll leave it to smarter people to figure out exactly how, but products with such large footprints always present interesting tie-in opportunities.

Strategic Choice #3: Should Google buy or build?

Historically, it is very rare to see tech companies adjust their “DNA” from within. Google’s best new lines of business over the past few years came through the acquisitions of YouTube and Android. Moreover, these acquisition were unusual in that they were left as semi-independent business units. Facebook’s hold on social is incredibly strong – besides the super-strong network effects of its social graph, Facebook has made itself core infrastructure (e.g. Facebook Connect) throughout the web. If Google really wants to catch up, they’ll need to go back to the strategy they succeeded with in the past of acquiring relevant companies and letting them run as separate business units.

* Disclosure: I’m an investor in a bunch of startups, so you could reasonably argue I’m highly biased here.

The importance of predictability for platform developers

A platform is a technology or product upon which many other technologies or products are built. Some platforms are controlled by a single corporation: e.g. Windows, iOS, and Facebook. Some are controlled by standards committees or groups of companies: e.g. the web (html/http), RSS, and email (smtp).

Platforms succeed when they are 1) financially sustainable, and 2) have a sufficient number of developers that are financially sustainable. Fostering a successful developer community means convincing developers (and, possibly, investors in developers) that the platform is a worthwhile investment of time and money.

Developers who create applications for platforms take on all the usual risks related to launching a new product, but in addition take on platform-specific risks, namely:

  1. Platform decline: the platform will decline or go away entirely.
  2. Subsumption risk: the platform will subsume the functionality of the developer’s application.

The most successful platforms try to mitigate these risks for developers (not just the appearance of these risks). One way to mitigate platform decline risk is to launch the platform after the platform’s core product is already successful, as Facebook did with its app platform and Apple did with its iOS platform. Platforms that are not yet launched or established can use other methods to reassure developers; for example, when Microsoft launched the first Xbox they very publicly announced they would invest $1B in the platform.

To mitigate subsumption risk, the platform should give developers predictability around the platform’s feature roadmap. Platforms can do this explicitly by divulging their product roadmap but more often do it implicitly by demonstrating predictable patterns of feature development. Developers and investors are willing to invest in the iOS platform because – although Apple will take 30% of the revenue – it is highly unlikely that Apple will, say, create games to compete with Angry Birds or news to compete with The New York Times. Similarly, Facebook has thus far stuck to “utility” features and not competed with game makers, dating apps, etc.

Platforms that are controlled by for-profit businesses that don’t yet have established business models have special challenges. These companies are usually in highly experimental modes and therefore probably themselves don’t know their future core features. The best they can do to mitigate developers’ risks are 1) provide as much guidance as possible on future features, and 2) when developer subsumption is necessary, do so in a way that keeps the developer ecosystem financially healthy – for example, by acquiring the subsumed products.

The least risky platforms to develop on are successful open platforms like the web, email, and Linux. These platforms tend to change slowly and have very public development roadmaps. In the rare case where a technology is subsumed by an open platform, it is usually apparent far in advance. For example, Adobe Flash might be subsumed by the canvas element in HTML5, but Adobe had years to see HTML5 approaching and adjust its strategy accordingly. The predictability of open platforms is the main reason that vast amounts of wealth have been created on top of them and investment around them continues unabated.

Web services should be both federated and extensible

One of the most important developments of the web 2.0 era is the proliferation of full featured, bidirectional APIs.  APIs provide a way to “federate” web services from a single website to a distributed network of 3rd party sites. Another important web 2.0 development is the proliferation of web Apps (e.g. Facebook Apps). Apps provide a way to make websites “extensible.”

The next step in this evolution is to create web services that are both federated (APIs) and extensible (Apps).

In my ideal world, the social graph would not be controlled by a private company. That said, Facebook, to its credit, has aggressively promoted a fairly open API through Facebook Connect. Facebook has also been a leader in promoting Apps. For Facebook, creating extensible, federated services would mean providing a framework for Facebook Connect Apps – apps that extend Facebook functionality but reside on non-Facebook.com websites.

Consider the following scenario.  Imagine that in the future a geolocation data/algorithm provider like SimpleGeo takes Facebook Places check-in data and, using algorithms and non-Facebook data, produces new data sets, for example: map directions, venue recommendations, and location-based coupons. The combination of Facebook’s data (social graph and check-ins) and SimpleGeo data/algorithms would create much more advanced feature possibilities than either service acting alone.

With today’s APIs, if, say, Gowalla wanted to integrate Facebook plus SimpleGeo into their app*, they would basically have 3 choices:

1) Embed Facebook widgets in Gowalla.  These are simple iframes (effectively separate little websites) that don’t interact with SimpleGeo.  Gowalla would just have to sit and wait and hope that Facebook decided to bake in SimpleGeo-like functionality.

2) Pre-import SimpleGeo data. This significantly limits the size and dynamism of the SimpleGeo data sets and doesn’t incorporate SimpleGeo algorithms, thus severely limiting functionality.

3) Host an instance of SimpleGeo’s servers internally.  This requires heavy technical integration, undermining the main benefit of APIs.

In a world of extensible APIs (or “API Apps”), Gowalla could instead send Facebook data back to SimpleGeo.  The data flow would look something like this:

(Note how there are three parties involved – @peretti calls this a “data threesome”). This configuration is much simpler to integrate – and potentially much more powerful and dynamic – than the other configurations listed above.  You could implement this today, but it would create user experience challenges.  For example, Gowalla would be sending Facebook data to a 3rd party (step 3), which might (depending on the data sent) require explicit user opt-in. Things become more onerous if SimpleGeo wanted to share its own user data with Gowalla. That would require an additional oAuth to SimpleGeo (authorizing step 4).

Allowing websites to be federated and extensible will open up a whole new wave of innovation.  Ideally some spec like oAuth could include the multiple authorizations in a single authorization screen.  Facebook could also do this by allowing 3rd parties to be part of the Facebook Connect authorization process.  Inasmuch as Facebook’s seems to be trying to embed their social graph as deeply as possible into the core experiences of other websites, allowing extensible APIs would seem to be a smart move.

* I have no connection to any of these companies (Facebook, Gowalla, SimpleGeo) and have no knowledge of their product plans beyond their public websites.  I am imagining functionality that Gowalla and SimpleGeo might include someday but for all I know they have no interest in these features – I just picked them somewhat arbitrarily as examples.

While Google fights on the edges, Amazon is attacking their core

Google is fighting battles on almost every front:  social networking, mobile operating systems, web browsers, office apps, and so on.  Much of this makes sense, inasmuch as it is strategic for them to dominate or commoditize each layer that stands between human beings and online ads.  But while they are doing this, they are leaving their core business vulnerable, particularly to Amazon.

When legendary VC John Doerr quit Amazon’s board a few months ago, savvy industry observers like TechCrunch speculated that Google might begin directly competing with Amazon:

[Google] competes with Amazon in a number of areas, particularly web services and big data. And down the road, Google may compete directly in other ways as well. Froogle was a flop, but don’t think Google doesn’t want a bigger chunk of ecommerce revenue from people who begin their product searches on their search engine.*

In fact, Google and Amazon’s are already direct competitors in their core businesses. Like Amazon, Google makes the vast majority of its revenue from users who are looking to make an online purchase. Other query types – searches related to news, blog posts, funny videos, etc. – are mostly a loss leaders for Google.

The key risk for Google is that they are heavily dependent on online purchasing being a two-stage process:  the user does a search on Google, and then clicks on an ad to buy something on another site. As long as the e-commerce world is sufficiently fragmented, users will prefer an intermediary like Google to help them find the right product or merchant. But as Amazon increasingly dominates the e-commerce market, this fragmentation could go away along with users’ need for an intermediary.**

Moreover, Google’s algorithmic results for product searches are generally poor. (Try using Google to decide what dishwasher to buy). These poor results might actually lead to short term revenue increases since the sponsored links are superior to the unsponsored ones.  But long term if Google continues producing poor product search results and Amazon continues consolidating the e-commerce market, Google’s core business is at serious risk.

* Froogle (and Google Products) have been unsuccessful most likely because Google has had no incentive to make them better: they make plenty of money on these queries already on a CPC basis, and would likely make less if they moved to a CPA model.

** Most Amazon Prime customers probably already do skip Google and go directly to Amazon.  I know I do.

News is a lousy business for Google too

There is a widespread myth that search engines have taken profits away from news websites. A few months ago, Rupert Murdoch said: “Google has devised a brilliant business model that avoids paying for news gathering yet profits off the search ads sold around that content.”

The reality is that news is a lousy business. Period. Even Google doesn’t make money on it. For example, here are Google’s search results for the phrase “afghanistan war”:

Notice there aren’t any ads on the page. This is because ads for “afghanistan war” generate such low revenues per query that Google doesn’t think it’s worth hurting the user experience with a cluttered page. Google can afford to do this on news queries (along with many other categories of queries) because their real business is selling ads on queries where the user likely has purchasing intent. Big money-making categories include travel, consumer electronics and malpractice lawyers. News queries are loss leaders.

It’s an historical accident that hard news categories like international and investigative reporting were part of profitable businesses. The internet upended this model by 1) providing a new delivery method for classified ads (mainly Craigslist), 2) increasing the supply of newspapers from 1-2 per location to thousands per location, thereby driving the willingness-to-pay for news dramatically down, and 3) unbundling news categories, making cross subsidization increasingly hard.

The internet exposed hard news for what it is: a lousy standalone business. Google arguably contributed to this in many indirect ways, including by helping users find substitute news sources. But the idea that Google takes profits directly from newspapers is simply misinformed.