Google +1: What It Is and Isn't

Google introduced its so-called +1 feature this week, widely portrayed in the blogosphere as an answer to the Facebook Like button. You probably don't see it in your Google results -- the feature is being rolled out incrementally, to a small sliver of Google users first. When you do see it, it appears as a small button next to each search result. Clicking it is a vote of approval for the target site. That endorsement appears next to the search result when people who know you (through Google products) conduct a search that brings up the same search result.

Here is Google's explanation as voiced in an introductory video:

"When you have lots of options in front of you, it's easy to find yourself wishing for a bit of advice. That's why we're introducing the +1: a way for you and your friends to help each other find great things in Google Search. When you click +1, you're telling your friends, your family and the rest of the world: This is something you should check out."

There are some immediate problems with this introductory mission statement:

1) "...wishing for a bit of advice." Peer recommendations are essential in the social web, no question about it. But do we want them when conducting a Google search? Or, if we wanted advice, would we have started in a peer-based service like Twitter or Facebook? In other words, is jamming a social value into the Google search result page too unnatural to gain traction?

2) " and your friends..." OK, except most people don't think in terms of Google friends. At first, Google will reach into Gmail contact lists to identify friendship circles. That's fine, but most people don't think of their email address book as representing their social graph, even if it does. This is a psychological barrier, hinging on the fact that Google Search is not a social platform for the most part, and most people don't use it with friends and sharing in mind.

The big difference between Google +1 and the Facebook Like button is this: Google Search is not a content site. Facebook is. Google is a portal to external pages. Its purpose is to get you out of Google by clicking an organic search result or an ad. Facebook's purpose is to keep you in Facebook. Facebook is a walled garden. Google is a stopover.

So when Google says, "you're telling your friends, your family and the rest of the world: This is something you should check out" -- it might as well be saying the following: "Google offers stepping stones that get you to the opposite river bank. Use the +1 feature to circle back and place an X on a stone that was helpful. If someone you know crosses at the exact same spot, they'll see it."

Not a compelling incentive. How many people will go back to the Google results page after leaving it, to +1 a search result? It is certainly not a community service on par with Facebook Like.

So if Google +1 is not serious about connecting users, what is it for? It is for tightening the bond between Google and web publishers.

The enticement for publishers is that user voting will raise their site profile in Google search results. The next wave of Google +1 will put the voting buttons on the sites themselves, where they belong if they are to be remotely comparable to Facebook Like buttons. Publishers will have to cooperate to make this work, and they will. All publishers seriously in the audience circulation game load up their pages with social recommendation buttons. And Google is the #1 traffic source for most big publishers. So adding a button that potentially increases Google juice is a no-brainer.

Google vs. Facebook for control of the web: that's the meme. Google has to be more frightened of the social web than Facebook is of Google as a search utility. Facebook is the Internet for some members. Meanwhile, Google accounts and Google profiles are conceptually difficult for many. The +1 feature might encourage some people to build up their profile presence in Google, and (this part is an unlikely stretch) start thinking of search results as shareable content, like a video shared on Facebook.

Or, +1 will fall into the "eh, whatever" bucket with Buzz and Wave. Because, in addition to everything else, I have to wonder how much parallel sharing people want to do. After you've shared a great web site on Facebook, and tweeted it ... do you have enough social appetite left to vote for it in a way that your friends might never see?