In June, Google dropped Google+ profile photos and circle counts from search results, taking away a major benefit of participation in the Google Authorship program. With this development coming on the heels of the April departure of Google+ leader Vic Gundotra, marketers are wondering whether Google+ has any future as a marketing platform.
Google+: Fading from Day One?
To be sure, Google+ has been challenged to prove itself as a useful marketing platform from day one. The main issue: Google+ never had a clear identity. From launch forward, Google has insisted that Google+ is not a social platform, even though it has the look and feel of a stripped-down Facebook. Google+ describes itself this way:
“Google+ is literally Google with a plus. The “+” is the social networking it adds to all of Google’s other services, including Gmail, YouTube, and Blogger. Google+ brings popular social-media features like comments, photo- and music-sharing, videochat, etc. to your social circles.
It’s basically what any user chooses it to be, from an ongoing conversation to a platform of self-expression, with tools for making it as individual or collective as you want.”
This is a tough concept for marketers to wrap their heads around, compared to the straightforward business models of sound bite Twitter and virtual playground Facebook. As a result of this and other issues such as its uninspired design and mediocre usability, Google+ has not been able to attract a broad base of engaged users, making its value as a marketing platform for engagement, lead generation and branding quite limited.
Google+ is far from a total bust, however. As an active Google+ user from day one, I’ve found it useful in three important ways:
- Google+ is, and I think can easily continue to be, a great forum for serious discussions of marketing issues. For the marketing industry at least, Google+ is everything LinkedIn could have been – a social site where serious professionals can exchange serious ideas in groups or one-to-one.
- Google Authorship is an effective method to establish credibility for authors, the content they produce, and the sites on which they publish. The fact that Google appears to be removing or lessening the Authorship-SEO connection is cause for concern – but yet, inevitable. More on this shortly.
- Because Google indexes and ranks original Google+ content almost immediately, the platform can function as an effective way to improve organic search visibility faster than what can be accomplished through standard SEO activities. Whether Google+ content in SERPs results in conversions is another question entirely.
The Future of Google+ for Marketing: It’s All About SEO
For most business marketers (B2B and B2C), the biggest attraction and biggest differentiator of Google+ has been its impact on SEO.
As a pure social network, Google+ lags far behind Twitter and Facebook, and the gap is widening. Compared to these leaders, Google+ is woefully lacking in usability, an active user base, advertising potential, clarity of purpose and the elusive “fun factor.”
Conversely, Google+ has, at least until now, offered substantial SEO benefits to users regardless of how much social engagement they have on the platform. Authorship, the indexing of original Google content and the juice obtained from Plus Ones (i.e., likes) appear to have anywhere from some to significant SEO value.
Perhaps more important, marketers have viewed the Google+ / SEO connection as something likely to expand, not contract. Until very recently, we have encouraged our clients to participate actively in Google+ in part for its immediate SEO benefits, but also for its future SEO benefits to early adapters. With the SEO benefits now in doubt, we’re more likely to advise clients to wait and see.
My own view is that Google will continue to whittle down the SEO value of the Google+ platform.
In the first place, a built-in conflict has always existed for Google search and Google+. To the extent Google favors Google+ content and Google+ social activity in its organic search rankings, it loses its position as a neutral, objective deliverer of information.
Even without Google+, Google has struggled to shake off accusations of favoritism and rigging the game. Accusations revolving around manipulations that favor advertisers or large enterprises are murky; but a conflict of interest between two Google products is crystal clear – and hardly worth the risk. I can’t see Google putting its search engine business in jeopardy for the sake of an unproven and marginally successful social network facing rabid competition from much stronger competitors. Can you?
Google Authorship: Who Needs It?
Looking specifically at the Authorship-SEO relationship, it’s similarly no surprise that Google is winding down the Authorship program – the tide of popular opinion and technology is surging against it.
The idea that an author with a Google+ profile is more authoritative than one without it is a dubious proposition at best. Google+ is neither universally accepted nor universally used (far from it); nor does it have clear and consistent qualitative standards for membership.
Does Google need Authorship to recognize authoritative authors? Does it even need links to do so? My guess is, no. Google can see connections between authors and their content, the sites on which they publish, the social shares their content earns and other ranking factors that have no connection to Authorship.
Why, then, should Google invest time and money in a program that is technically unnecessary, not clearly understood by participants or search engine users, and on top of that, contributes to Google’s reputation for favoritism? It’s hard to picture a scenario in which Authorship could thrive.
Marketers: Wait and See
At this point, a wait-and-see position on Google+ is in order. Business doesn’t like uncertainty, and the future of Google+ is uncertain. If the present marketing value of Google+ is limited, and all signs point to its future value being more limited, investing in Google+ is a very hard case to make.
If no alternatives existed, the business case for Google+ would be easier to make – but the situation is exactly the opposite. Social marketing has never held more promise than it does today. Facebook, love it or hate it, has established itself and is performing admirably for many organizations, especially in the B2C arena. Twitter, despite its growing pains, has proven itself as a versatile marketing vehicle. Visually oriented platforms such as Instagram and Vimeo and Snapchat are taking off like rockets. Sure, anything could happen to any of these networks – social marketing (and SEO, for that matter) are inherently risky.
Inherent risk is all the more reason to avoid investing in social platforms that lack momentum, a clear business model and committed ownership. Unfortunately for Google+, it seems to lack all three, at least for the moment.