Twitter, Google Debate New Social Search...But What's Best for the Customer?

Contributor:  Brian Cantor
Posted:  01/11/2012  12:00:00 AM EST
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Tags:   social media | twitter | google

Could the motivations behind Google’s new “Search, Plus your World” upgrade—and the resulting complaint from Twitter—be more obvious?  For Google, the multi-dimensional incorporation of Google Plus content into its search results provides an invaluable marketing opportunity for its oft-overlooked social network.  Naturally, that marginalizes Twitter content and thus robs the “buzz hub” of a growth opportunity (while also destroying its leverage in any future negotiations to license its firehose of data), and the bird company is upset.

In its simplest sense, it may seem there is no “debate” here.  Google is a for-profit business, and it naturally wants to do everything in its power to grow that profit.  Given that reality, why would it not seize this opportunity to bring more awareness to Google Plus, while simultaneously improving the customer experience of its search product and its social product?  Why would it not give itself an advantage over one of Plus’ key competitors?

All of that rings especially true given the reality of data-sharing between companies in 2012.  After not renewing its real-time search partnership with Google last summer, Twitter apparently closed off a significant portion of its data to the search giant, which would make comprehensive indexing impossible.  In order to index Twitter content in the manner it indexes Google Plus content, it would have to strike a new agreement.  Google would thus be paying to limit the market penetration of its own service.

To a shallow business mind, the case would seem open-and-shut.

To a Peter Drucker-inspired customer-centric mind, the case is anything but.

In its blog post announcing “Search, Plus Your World,” Google features rhetorically-dazzling comments like, “You should also be able to find your own stuff on the web, the people you know and things they’ve shared with you, as well as the people you don’t know but might want to... all from one search box” and, “Our dream is to have technology enable everyone to experience the richness of all their information and people around them.”  It stresses the importance of allowing search engine users to connect with personalities and communities of similar interests.  It reminds users that in 2012, the online world is not about static pages—it is about social relationships, whether between next door neighbors or individuals on opposite ends of the country.

And if that very customer-centric philosophy is the one on which the new feature will strengthen the Google search experience, how can the company possibly argue that exclusively featuring Google Plus content is the right strategy?

As a vastly-more popular network, and one specifically tailored to real-time discussion and buzzworthy trends, Twitter is irrefutably playing an integral role in defining how web users acquire and synthesize information.  One can certainly make the case that Google Plus is technologically superior and that the actual content shared is typically of a higher substantive quality, but based on its lesser reach and activity alone, one absolutely cannot say that it provides a more exhaustive glimpse into the social synthesis of the topics for which Google users will search.

And in terms of connections with brands, celebrities, topic authorities and friends, while Google Plus might theoretically provide a more-informative window into the entity, Twitter (and Facebook) is irrefutably the preferred-hub for real-time engagement.

Most importantly, no matter which side one takes in the Twitter vs. Google Plus war, he cannot possibly argue that a tool designed to bring search engine users face-to-face with social sentiment and community discussions is achieving its mission by exclusively siphoning data from Google Plus.  Insofar as millions of conversations, trending topics, celebrities, brands and friends inhabit Facebook and Twitter but not Google Plus, the “Search, Plus Your World” function is absolutely delivering an optimal experience for customers.

Some online discussions sympathetic to Google have centered their argumentation on Twitter’s supposed lack of substantive content, which demonstrates a mind-boggling numbness to the very nature of social discussion.  Twitter took off as a “news tool” not because people were consulting it as the authority on journalistic excellence but because it provided a snapshot of breaking stories, trends and how individuals of all different cultures were synthesizing them.

Sure, liking and +1’ing are great means of exposing readers to high-quality content and thus represent a valuable barometer of what could matter to search engine users, but it is not like Twitter cannot also deliver on that “ranking” objective through measured re-Tweeting.  And when it comes to capturing topical reaction and discussion, it presently adds a unique dimension to any “social” search rollout.

Moreover, though Twitter’s response to Google is largely centered on its role in providing breaking news, there is another element of the “Search, Plus Your World” concept that has been sorely overlooked by so many online commentators: the inclusion of social networking accounts in its results.

While it certainly seems unintuitive, off-base and “un-social” to not include real-time Twitter discussions in socially-minded search engines, Google can at least claim that its users do not value such information (and, in fairness, its value proposition for “Search, Plus Your World” does not include an emphasis on the kind of real-time buzz dominated by Twitter).  But by announcing it will produce links to relevant Google Plus accounts for generic search terms, it affirms the importance of connecting users to the social media accounts of those who frequently discuss that topic.

As an example, it reveals that a search for “music” could produce visual, impossible-to-ignore links to the Google Plus accounts of musicians like Britney Spears, Alicia Keys and Snoop Dogg.  Conspicuously absent from the results are the links to their respective Facebook and Twitter pages, which are presently available for Google indexing and are very likely, based on current reach, of more value to the users who are searching.

It would take a masterful debate for Google to claim that such a system is wholly customer-centric and providing searchers with the most relevant, valuable results rather than ones of direct benefit to Google.  And without that justification, Search Engine Land astutely notes that Google’s search engine is violating its inherent commitment to play “Miracle on 34thStreet” Santa.  Instead of making good on its promise to independently direct  users to the best destinations, even if those destinations are owned by competitors, it is putting self-interest first.

That mindset is not what made millions of users deem Google the web’s most valuable search engine.

Granted, Twitter is not an entirely-innocent victim here.  Twitter, after all, is not desperately scrambling for a wider inclusion of Google Plus results in web search engines; its desire, here, is mainly to further its own brand and thus just as distinguished from the “greater good” as is being alleged of Google’s focus.

And while the full extent of the negotiations has never emerged, Google maintains that Twitter was the one that opted to nix the content partnership that meant the end of real-time search.  With Google on the record that it would consider including other social data, if sufficiently-comprehensive, in its “Plus Your World” results, it would, in fact, seem the ball is at least partially in Twitter’s court to remedy the concern that “as a result of Google’s changes, finding [Tweets related to breaking news] will be much harder for everyone.”

But there is still one caveat:  Google’s call for competitive social networks to open their walls, as it stands, may not be in the true spirit of customer-centricity.

“We'd certainly be open to helping people more easily find information from other services, but we'd want to make sure we were providing a consistent user experiences with meaningful control,” alarmingly explains Google in a statement to the Washington Post.

For all anyone knows, Google’s intentions can be as pure as can be.   But buried within that PR-friendly statement is a significant hazard:  who exactly determines what that “consistent user experience” must entail?

Since the answer is “Google,” the situation, theoretically, produces a massive conflict of interest.  By controlling both the rules (the terms of that consistent user experience) and one of the products subject to those rules (Google Plus), Google retains the ability to change the metaphorical “question” once competitive social networks find the “answers.”  If it decides it wants to widen the gap between support for Google Plus and Twitter, it can make a change to the data created by Google Plus and then declare that new data format a “rule” for inclusion.  If Google does not find Twitter’s data to be consistent with the new rule, it can exclude Twitter from results without necessarily concerning itself for what produces the best possible search experience.

Granted, throughout its existence, Google has generally played far fairer than would even be demanded, and there is no reason to believe it would spitefully rig the system at the expense of its customers.

But the point is that “Search, Plus Your World,” as it stands, seems disproportionately—and surprisingly--fixated on Google’s interests rather than customer-centricity.  The logic is pretty simple:  if more users are interested in communicating on Facebook and Twitter than Google Plus, why would search engine users be solely interested in data from Google Plus?  And thus, does anyone believe Google’s motivations are entirely innocent?

The Google search situation is a clear example of the consequence of having a vested business interest in conflicting categories:  companies face the far from enviable challenge of needing to choose between committing completely to the customer experience provided by one category and promoting the competitive success of the other one.

Brian Cantor Contributor:   Brian Cantor

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