Here’s what Google+ could have been

April 6, 2012 | 2 comments

Confession: I want to like Google+. I think competition is a great thing, and Google is in a unique position to do something fascinating with social platforms. It’s also significant that a lot of really brilliant people from the decentralized web community – Chris Messina, Will Norris and Stephen Paul Weber, for example – now work at Google. (Not to mention Elgg’s Evan Winslow.) I have nothing but respect for those guys. And, hey, I’ll admit that I’m a little envious that they get to work on it.

In my opinion, search needs to be at the center of social software. It’s how you find new people, resources and shared conversations. As I argued on a panel at SXSW 2011, it’s far more natural to visit someone’s profile by typing “Ben Werdmuller” (for example) into a box than typing “http://benwerd.com/” or “http://facebook.com/ben.werdmuller”.

Google has over 66% of the US search market, so it’s in a great place to be where that happens, which is presumably what was on their minds when they decided to build a social platform. They also have traditionally had a problem with the “deep web” – the non-public bits of information that its spiders can’t get to. More and more, that’s because these web resources are subject to user-centric access permissions within web applications. Because the Google search spider isn’t a user, it doesn’t have access to these resources, and they never get listed.

Which is why I’m so surprised that Google+ has remained a monolithic social dashboard, akin to Twitter or Facebook. (In fact, it’s more so than Facebook, which has done a great job at turning itself into a very impressive social platform.) You share stuff using +1 buttons or the interface on the Google+ site itself, and are limited to the small number of data types that Google have provided on their own site. You can post links, photos, videos and text updates.

But Google is great at making platforms. Because of its openness, Google Maps is still the go-to standard for displaying cartographic information on the web. (It’s significant that its creator now works at Facebook.) Google Analytics is just about everywhere. And Google APIs are typically easy to use, fast to integrate and powerful.

So why isn’t Google+ a platform? The Circles functionality is brilliant: nuanced access control made simple. If Google integrated those access controls throughout the whole web, allowing anyone to integrate them into their sites and applications with search and universal sharing across all of them, they would effectively become a social application operating system. It would be a new kind of platform altogether, and would cement their search portal – and thus, their advertising – as the default place to look for connected resources. To keep privately-shared resources secure, social objects could be stored in the Google cloud, presenting themselves to a requesting application only if the authenticated user had access. At Elgg, we wanted to do this with a feed format called the Open Data Definition half a decade ago, but didn’t have the resource to execute to our satisfaction; Google has those resources. Universally shareable social objects with privacy controls, searchable via a unified Google interface, would transform the web.

Maybe this is what Google is warming up to. But right now, and probably for the foreseeable future, Facebook is a more interesting social platform.