What would you do as a Product Manager on Google+? "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs July 07 2012 True Facebook, Goals, Google+, LinkedIn, Objectives, Positioning, Strategy, Tactics, Twitter, Value, Vision, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 997 Product Management 3.988

What would you do as a Product Manager on Google+?

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My real gripe with the Product Vision behind Google+ is… it doesn’t appear to have one. Forget the criticisms of Google+ tactics – instead let’s take a look at their strategy and get constructive.

In order to make this worthwhile, we first have to reverse engineer what the goal of Google+ might be. I don’t work at Google and admittedly, I know nothing more than the average outsider but one could assume quite safely – regardless of whether the objective is social signals, data, or advertising – that the goal looks something like “own a major social network”.

I don’t think there is any problem with this goal – Google has a lot at stake to lose but also plenty to gain. It absolutely makes sense for them to attempt to create a data-rich, social communications platform. My issue lies with their strategy in reaching that objective.

This project really could be a product managers dream: heavenly amounts of resources, big ambitions, well-understood product dynamics, competitive gaps and some of the smartest people on the planet.

Instead, Google+ is a muddled collection of popular features from other social networks sprinkled with some new features based on pretty theoretical research. Google+ strikes me as a product trying to be everything to everyone.

So my question is – if you were the product manager on Google+ what would you do differently? What focus would you choose to make Google+ find its strong footing?

First Rule of Product: Add Real Value

It appears that Google is asking “where should we be?” instead of “where can we add value?”

This is the mistake of many products.

The paradox is that the only answer to “where should we be?” is “where you can add value”. Nothing else.

By focusing on how Google can add value for people, they can build a product that users really want to use and in turn, the data and advertising opportunities will naturally arrive. By focusing on where Google wants to be but can’t add value will be an expensive misadventure.

There is a difficult decision to make here which forces so many to take the wrong path time and time again. The end value of replacing Facebook is pretty well understood and predictable but the end value of being whatever product it is that ‘adds real value’ is not well understood. Time and time again, people choose the predictable but inordinately difficult reward instead of the less predictable but achievable reward.

Without creating new value, Google+ must take value. That means going head to head with Facebook and literally trying to replace them. This is an ok strategy if Facebook is a lumbering, outdated incumbent but a pretty bad strategy if Facebook is a bleeding edge, fast-paced company.

Second Rule of Product: Focus

Once you realise how to add new value, just focus on that until you get it right. That’s really the only guiding principle – in practice, this is years of ruthless experimentation, refinement and optimisations.

So what form should Google+ take to create new value?

It’s important to remember that a social network of this scope will need to displace another. Google+ is playing in a zero sum game and in order to gain traction, the users must come from another social network. The strong network effect with social networks means a competing service can’t just be marginally better (let’s say 10%-20%), it needs to be significantly better (let’s say 50%-100%).

Google doesn’t need to create a new social networking paradigm, they just need to take one of the existing communities and do it significantly better. So, what are their options?

Facebook

Facebook does Facebook fine, overall it’s not too bad. Sure, it has its handful of issues. Maybe it could be 10% better, maybe more. But 50%-100% better? I don’t believe so, Facebook is already operating at the forefront of what consumers are comfortable with. Facebook also understands social mechanics and behaviour significantly better than Google. That’s not something Google can easily acquire, especially given the pending IPO acting like a magnet to Facebook staff.

Twitter

Can Google make Twitter significantly better? Possibly. It’s a good culture fit for Google who tends to do well on functional, fast and reliable systems. It would take a long time to move such a committed community to a better product but with major product-smarts departing from Twitter, maybe more of a window will open. It’s not out of the question, but an acquisition is probably a better route than head-on competition.

LinkedIn

Could Google make LinkedIn significantly better than LinkedIn? You bet they could.

Culture fit? Check.

LinkedIn isn’t about wasting time and attracting as many eyeballs as possible. It’s about being a utility, serving the best data and helping professionals get their job done. To me, that sounds right on par with Google’s operating philosophy and brand – Google as a brand speaks to me in a serious, trusting tone rather than a personal, fun brand.

Slowly evolving encumbent? Check.

LinkedIn evolves incredibly slowly and most professionals keep their LinkedIn contacts up to date, but really don’t know what else to do there. To me that shows interest, but no good purpose. One could also imagine that LinkedIn’s recent IPO probably isn’t going to speed up their product innovation or risk-taking.

Added synergy with existing products? Freakin’ check.

Are you kidding me? Google Apps: Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs. Google Maps – businesses. Google News. Google Search – publishers. These would all benefit from being integrated into a professional social network.

That’s my plan, what’s yours?

I know there’s a lot of chatter about Google+ showing amazing growth out of the gates but I think most know that this is quite superficial data because of how they’re achieving it.

If for nothing other than your own mental exercise, perhaps a poaching from Google, or maybe even influencing what happens in the future – I’d love to hear what other product managers would do with Google+.

6 thoughts on “What would you do as a Product Manager on Google+?

  1. I don’t think the pretty theoretical research that you allude to is all that insignificant – granted that at the end of the day it is just one of the features of Facebook which they have started promoting  (who to share?) when you leave a status update.

    I just think that providing search results based on social recommendations in hindsight looks so obvious that you would wonder why does it need thinking at all. It just seems to be one of those things that they never got around to thinking about strategically or felt they could just buy one of the players…. and when that failed or to have the plan B the only option left was to throw money at an experiment and hope it works, after all they tried Buzz as well.

    + I look at Google+ as just a lot of social features they would use and reuse across their products so it’s not such a lost story

  2. Thanks for the article, Sam, and the opportunity to do some “armchair product management” and have a great discussion.

    I actually disagree with your assessment, which may make for a great conversation.

    To talk about Google+ strategy without talking about Google strategy is like talking about the strategy for the driver’s seat of a car without talking about the strategy for the car.  To me, Google’s strategy for Google plus is pretty simple -> make search better, in order to sell advertising more profitably.

    Start with the perspective that Google’s customers are advertisers.  The attention that people pay to the ads is “the product.”  Google+, search, gmail, are all investments in improving the marketability of their product to their customers (the people who pay them money).

    The data that comes from understanding social graphs can inform relevance calculations for search (thereby making search better, for users) and for ad-selection (driving higher engagement and higher user-action rates, thereby making ads purchased from Google more cost-effective for customers).

    Google puts product managers on what we normally think of as products, who make those products better for users, such that those improvements make their actual product (attention) better for customers.

    Google’s “strategy” for any given property is really a set of tactics to support the over-arching strategy for their product (attention).  

    A couple examples: 
    1. Invest in android, in order to increase the supply of product by increasing the amount of attention that is available (for sale) per day per internet user.
    2. Invest in gmail, in order to increase the supply of product (attention) by having users spend their “email time” (time online is a proxy for “possibly available attention”) that is available for sale to their customers (advertisers).
    3. Invest in search, in order to increase the supply of product (attention) by making Google’s search more valuable to users (than other search engines).
    4. Invest in Google TV – same as (1).
    5. Invest in Google+, in order to increase the supply of product by increasing the amount of attention (cognitively, actually paying attention versus ignoring) that is available to be sold.  Attention does not equal page views, but that’s how a lot of ads are sold.  The more times (when a page is viewed) that a user actually pays attention to an ad, the more a customer will pay (per page view) for that ad – because that ad is more valuable to the customer.

    From that point of view, Google needs Google+ to do two things:
    A. Provide data that can be used to improve relevance in search (3, above), which is where most Google revenue comes from today, so that more people will use Google’s search more often.
    B. Provide capabilities in Google+ that encourage more people to use it more, in order to improve / increase the data (A) that can be used to increase the quantity of product (attention) that Google sells to customers (advertisers).

    I suspect that Google+ will never get polluted with ads (directly), because it wouldn’t be the primary revenue driver.  http://www.forbes.com/sites/afontevecchia/2011/12/19/facebook-beating-google-in-the-battle-for-eyeballs-and-display-ads/ suggests 90% of revenue comes from search – which would be > $30B for 2012.  Facebook will make ~ $5B (1/6th the revenue) with 5 to 10 times as many social network users (of Facebook @ 1B, versus Google+ @ 100-200M).  That may be one tactic for getting Google+ usage “high enough” for (5, above).

    Creating ubiquitous Google+ presence throughout Google properties minimizing the barrier to entry for users also seems like a good tactic.  Google doesn’t have to _replace_Facebook_ in order to “win.”  Google only needs to get enough people using Google+ enough to support (5).

    Google can easily win (strategically) without beating Facebook (at Facebook’s game).

    Thanks again for the article, would _love_ to hear your thoughts on this.

    1. Scott – great comment, I was hoping someone might bring this up.

      I totally accept that Google+ does not need to beat Facebook.

      I also totally concur that their objectives are most likely around gathering social signals for better search and advertising.

      I would opine that the reasons and logic you provide above is exactly the thinking going on behind Google+.

      My contention is that if a product does not add sufficient value for users, they will not hang around for long. Data from short-term usage is probably not a successful outcome for Google, I imagine they would prefer the data from long-term usage.

      My argument states that – for social networking in particular – there is a critical value which must be met in order to keep users over the long-term. This is also rather binary – it either meets that critical value or not. Adding a small bit of value (below the critical point) will not suffice and over the long-term the users will still disappear.

      So while I don’t think Google+ needs to beat Facebook – in fact I propose that it should compete with LinkedIn instead – it does need to exceed this critical value in order to acquire long-term data. Given the network effects of social networks, I propose that a side effect of building a product ‘good enough’ to acquire long term users is that the product will naturally displace the competition.

      Unfortunately, beating the competition now needs to be the goal.

      Ignoring that reality would lead a team to produce a sub-par product which has all of the data harvesting features of other social networks but wouldn’t hold users for much length of time. In that case, the next tactic would be to remind users about it as frequently as possible and perhaps to even require users to become members at any chance possible. QED?

      1. Thanks for the great dialog!

        I don’t believe that “beating” Facebook needs to be the goal – that would imply that either (a) Google needs to take users _away_ from Facebook, or (b) Google needs to get _more_ users than Facebook, or (c) Google needs to get more _attention_ from users than Facebook.

        I believe that Google’s strategy can succeed just by reaching a critical mass of usage, even if those users continue to use Facebook (and Twitter and LinkedIn).  Currently, it looks like Google+ has 150M users (http://www.webpronews.com/google-google-user-growth-will-shock-people-2011-12 ) with a prediction of 400M users by the end of 2012.  With Google+ integration into android, and now search, that passes my “sniff test” as a believable measure of usage.

        To get those kinds of numbers, you have to have a product for “everyone.”  And designing a product for “everyone” is the same as designing a product for no one.  That means you should start with “someone” like Facebook did with college students.

        Apparently, Google+ is “all the rage” for digital photographers.  That’s a good “someone” to start with.  Build out all the capabilities that those folks care about, then add the capabilities for “consumers of digital photography” then go on to “someone else.”  Rinse and repeat.

        I agree with your argument about needing to be “significantly better” in order to displace an incumbent.  I’m just not convinced that Google+ needs to displace anyone.  And once you have a user, the onus shifts onto the other guy to displace you with something significantly better.  If you’ve already got the user, you don’t have to outrun the bear – you just have to outrun the other guy.

        I also think that Google’s strategy (tactic) of infusing Google+ into “everything else” is a good one for (a) minimizing the barrier to entry of joining it and (b) minimizing the perception that it is a walled-garden.  

        A valid criticism of Facebook is that it feels to some people like “Facebook is the internet” much like “AOL was the internet” to many people 20 years ago.  When you have a walled garden like that, you trap people inside (in the short term), but you lose them completely when they climb the wall and leave your garden.  

        Also, even if people don’t “hang around” in Google+ (e.g. post to their walls, etc), they still will define (and possibly maintain) their social graph within the Google+ UI before they “leave.”  But from a data-standpoint, they haven’t really “left” unless they stop using search, gmail, chrome, android, youtube, etc.  

        They continue to inform Google (e.g. Google continues to receive a value-stream, allowing them to continue to improve their product (attention to ads) indefinitely.

  3. I agree with the muddle if scope, what bugs the hell out of me is that it appears to offering a network that is private (such as FB can be and is to most people) only offering feeds to my nearest and dearest, but also tries to be a Linkedin/Twitter network, where I get friended by all and sundry. My news feed now seems to mirror a Twitter, full of news articles and references to the industry I’m in, it visually and informationally boggles my noodle, I like compartmentalising my social media needs, friends and family, work colleagues and industry news. 

    I may be speaking from a particular mindset and some people may love a one stop shop, but Google seems to be highly focused on contextual content where Google+ seems to be a veritable melting pot…

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