Google+ … like the internet, only with a gun to your head

I have a great many things to be thankful for. One of them is my job. Too many people have no job, or a job they find hateful and demeaning.

In October of this year (which was still 2012 when I wrote this) I became the head of digital at a PR consultancy that until my arrival had taken a fairly measured approach to digital communications.

One of the consequences of this has been that I’ve been a bit more measured too. I’ve had to think carefully not just about what the right approach to a given set of requirements might be, but also about how I present my recommendations.

As challenging as this may have been, I keep reminding myself that it’s good to stop relying on familiar and comfortable ways of doing things.

As part of this, in recent weeks I’ve found myself looking at Google+ and shaking my head a little bit. “Why are you here Google+, where do you fit, what are you for, why should I care..?”

Well, it’s obvious really. If I care at all about search findings (and I do) then I have to care about Google+.

While Google has a history of not getting social (remember Wave and Buzz..?), from Panda and Penguin, through to the knowledge graph and AuthorRank, Google is working the data it holds. It has lots of data, after all, and consequently it’s working it hard.

Maybe it’s too easy to point and laugh at Google’s attempts at social – I should know, I do a lot of that pointing and laughing. Lots of people in my industry have told me in no uncertain terms how wrong I have been when I have publicly said that Google+ is another anti-social media platform from Google.

I’m not entirely wrong though. But nor should I be feeling too self righteous.

As a genuinely social platform Google+ is bit rubbish. Unless you only want to read things from fellow PR, digital and marcomms people that is. It’s like Quora on steroids… lots of brainy people showing off about the things they know about social media, all connected to other brainy people who know lots about social media.

There are no real people here. So where’s the benefit for a business of being somewhere where there are no real people? Unless you’re trying to sell to a load of self-elevated home-baked social media gurus, of course.

I’ll tell what the point is… search.

Search is the heartbeat of ecommerce. No, I can’t quite believe I just said something so nauseatingly cliched either. Let’s move on.

Want to do business online? Better hope you appear on the first page of Google search results (don’t talk to me about other search engines… they are a minority issue, at best).

Want to appear on the first page of Google results? Better get on Google+, create some content, link your profiles, etc etc.

Google+ is now an intrinsic part of the way Google handles search results, and is becoming a fundamental component in the selection of the information you are served when you go searching for ‘stuff’ online.

Suddenly Google+ looks a lot more relevant.

But then Google has just put a gun to your head.

There are lots of reasons why this is not a good thing. One of them is the incredible shrinking online world being created. That’s a subject for another post though.

Further reading

PC Pro: Google’s failed ideas: timeline of axed projects


The iPhoney war and Apple’s transformation into the AOL of mobile

Two kinds of queue form in the run up to a new launch from Apple.
The first is, of course, fanboyz who cannot wait to be among the very first to own the new iPhone, iPad or iWhatever.
The second is the nay-sayers, typically Android-owners who cannot wait to be among the first to mock said new and shiny Apple hardware. Although it’s generally the software they take issue with.
Thus it was this last week when the iPhone 5 came out and iOS 6 was released.
It’s as dull as it is predictable.
I used an iPhone for about three years and have been an Android user for the past year. Each has their good and bad points – like most things, really.
The ideology underpinning these two platforms is very different though.
There’s an excellent piece about in this GigaOM, which reports on a talk given by RIM’s Sebastian Marineau-Mes last week on the need for curated openness
Hat-tip to @craigdeakin for tweeting about it and bringing it to my attention.
Apple increasingly reminds me of AOL, something I think I first said in 2010. Surely I ought to have an original thought, but anyway…
Back in the mid 1990s AOL made getting online really uncomplicated and non-confrontational for its users. But the internet they were accessing wasn’t like the internet the rest of us were playing and working in. Eventually the walled-garden, where you were allowed only what your provider wanted you to have (or just the bits they thought you needed) suffered a breach.
In droves, AOL users defected to less tightly-bound online environments. You can track similar patterns in many early online communities and groupings – great at first because they were easy, they failed to keep pace with the changing needs and tastes of their users, who soon outgrew them.
I’m not saying the same thing could happen to Apple.
But that’s only because the main alternative in the mobile world – Android – looks like a cross between ‘Lord of the Flies’ and a food fight in a soft-play centre by comparison with the order and control Apple instills – despite it’s cool counter-culture image, Apple has become the man in recent years. Massive financial success tends to make one want to protect ones interests, after all.
With each new iOS version Apple has seemed, in recent years at any rate, to be clawing back control and I have to admit part of me really admires the slow steady way in which that’s being done. Like so many frogs in pans of gently warming water, iPhone (and iPad) users probably won’t realise they’re being cooked until it’s too late.
Try migrating from iPhone to Android and continuing to carry your music around with you like you used to have it in your iTunes library. Oh hai digital rights management. Now, where did I put my iPod?
At the moment, Google is too busy grafting additional fingers on to its hands so it can make friendly with all the pies. This cannot continue indefinitely.

Once it has reached sufficient critical mass in its key operations, markets and offerings, there will be a move to consolidate what it’s doing. At that point, I wonder if someone at Google will decide its time to stop pissfarting around and offer Apple customers a safe and enticing alternative, with no walls but plenty of garden for everyone.

I got a tweet from Charles Arthur, the technology editor at the Guardian. I was flattered that he’d read my piece. Here it is:

Well, I worried that I may now look a bit of a prat. While it wouldn’t be the first time, it’s not a state-of-being I like having thrust upon me.

To that end, here (below) is a screengrab of the sync history from when I synced my phone and laptop at around 2:30pm.

You’ll learn two things from this. 

The first is that the term DRM is used and given as a reason for the failure of certain things to sync, thereby mitigating the risk of my looking like the sort of prat who mightn’t know that “apple (sic) hasn’t had DRM on music for years.”

I should stress, I am not arguing with Charles. I am merely drawing your attention to the fact that the piece, which is written purely as opinion not fact, is drawn upon my experiences not my assumptions.  It may well be the case there’s no DRM on music via Apple. Yet it appears here in an error message.

The second thing you’ll learn is there’s right old motley collection of stuff to be found a-lurking in my iTunes library. From “My Sharona” to “Finn Family Moomintroll”, from “Psycho Killer” to “Brideshead Revisited”.

To Charles’s other point, yes there are ways around this stuff, but I think the ease-of-use aspect of my piece was apparent. This piece is a comment on how Apple make it easy for you to stay and (relatively) hard for you to leave – hence the analogy of frogs being slowly cooked. It is not a “How to…” guide, which is just as well really, as I’m sure you’d agree.

Social media has not evolved

Any discussion of the evolution of social media misses the point. It’s the evolution of the user that has been the biggest change in the last three years.

First it was “what is the point?”

Now it’s “we must find the point!”

That’s not a technology thing. That’s people realising the potential that (some but not all) social media platforms have and trying to be among the first to exploit that potential.

The change was slow at first. As is often the case.

Googleplus was the first major new platform that had brand managers and marketers rushing around frantically. Each time Facebook makes a change you see the same thing.  That’s to say, I don’t remember the same amount of marcoms clamour around Quora.

But it’s happening with new kids on the social block now in a way that didn’t happen before.

Pinterest and Percolate are two such examples.

Yes, there are people asking “what *is* the point?” of these platforms.  But increasingly there are people investigating their potential use in a brand advocacy manner.

Why I deleted my Google+ account

I was one of the first… fact.  I got my invite to join Google+ the day after it went live – a long time before the flood gates opened.
I very quickly got into the swing of it and found it useful and enjoyable. As it should be.
I also found that within a few days I was connected with a very high caliber of people from the creative industries whose opinions, observations and thoughts I was keen to share in.
It didn’t last long though.
I grew bored quickly of the goofing around some people indulged in, but that’s their choice. After all, just because I’d decided I’d use G+ more seriously than Twitter doesn’t mean everyone else should.
Then the echo chamber started.
People I knew via Twitter as well as on G+ were sharing all the same content in both places, with no objective other than to amplify their own social media echo. Unsurprisingly, their behaviour was applauded in both worlds by the same cabal of their followers.
Frankly, I just didn’t get it.  If you’ve shown off about something on twitter and your subset of friends and acolytes have jumped up and down whooping, hollering and sharing, why is the very same thing happening on G+, I wondered? After all, you’re clearly just patting each other’s backs, not really reading any of the stuff each other are sharing and looking like complete plonkers in front of the rest of us.
I got a tired of the territorialism I experienced too.
Then there was the wave of people I’ve never heard of adding me to circles even though there is nothing I was ever likely to say or share that would be of value to them and vice versa.
So, I wouldn’t add these people back.
I am not and never will be a social media numbers whore. I know too many of those. I rate them all pretty much the same.
That got worse, of course, once G+ became publicly available.
I forget the actual trigger but one day a combination of all of the above led me to conclude that I wanted out. So I deleted my account.
Now I read that the first person to have more than one million circles on G+ is Britney Spears.
I don’t think I ever felt more vindicated.

Why I’ve fallen out of love with Google

You and I have been together for a long time now, since 1998 in fact. I know that doesn’t quite make me a bona fide early adopter. And since I first looked to you to provide me with the answers to questions that plagued me, many others have followed in my footsteps. But even though you had only been available for about a year or so back then, compared with all the others I’d gone searching with – Yahoo, Ask Jeeves, even Alta Vista – you were…. different.
Things just seemed to click between us. You were there whenever I needed you and I soon forgot about the others. You never let me down. Things were simple. I asked, you answered. You never pretended to be something you weren’t.
Times change though. Indeed, times have changed. After a while it became clear that you wanted more, you needed more. I can’t blame you for that. It’s only natural.
I discovered that some people were using you for email. I was in no hurry to join in. But in the end I did. It was important to you, and that was enough for me to give it a go.
There were Documents, allegedly. I never paid much attention to them to be honest. It felt odd, too unusual. Out of character, even. I am not one who fears change, but it’s the little changes that allow one to read another’s motivation and behaviour and I detected a change in you that I hadn’t expected.
Maybe that’s why I ignored these Documents that so many people had begun to talk about so freely. I wanted to retain my grin of ignorant bliss for as long as possible.
There were other things too. But where it really started to go wrong for me was when you started asking everyone to Wave.
By and large, we didn’t want to. A few did – I was one of them. But it soon felt more like drowning than waving.
You then started to create a Buzz. It was starting to become embarrassing. You were becoming involved in everything. It felt like random, out of control behaviour. As though you didn’t know what you wanted anymore.
Throughout, I remained loyal, faithful and true. You were my search engine. Nothing was going to change that. Not even when someone asked me if I fancied having a Bing. Yes I was tempted. But I stayed resolute.
In my mind’s eye you were still young, fresh, challenging.
But your obsession with doing more and doing it with more and more people had by now taken such a grip on you that, if I’m honest with myself, you had changed beyond comparison with how you were when we first met.
Sharing. It was like a virus.
You called it GooglePlus and it was your desperate attempt to create your own social life, having so resolutely missed the boat when others created theirs.
You wanted people to share with you. You wanted people to share with each other. Where would it end, I wondered. Frictionless sharing, that’s where. Good lord… is this really what you have become?
Nothing and no one can take from me the memories of those early days. Back in 1998, colleagues scoffed at my boyish enthusiasm for you. But they soon succumbed to your charms. I felt vindicated. And a little smug. I was on the side of an up-and-coming challenger. It felt good. I felt good.
But times move on and people change. You are now a dominant force. No longer a plucky challenger with coquettish ways and winning performance to get you through. You don’t listen like you used to. You make assumptions about what you can get away with.
I want to tell you that it isn’t you, it’s me. Thing is… it is you.
But even so, I can’t quit you – as the line goes from Brokeback Mountain. You are everywhere I look. I am reflected in your Chrome. And even as I write, somewhere a courier is bringing me my first Android-powered smartphone.
I searched for the phone online.  I…. Googled it.  For all your fancy ways, underneath it all, you are still my search engine.  Nothing can change that.

The Google+ iPhone app: who’s the biggest loser?

I read on twitter earlier today that the iPhone is the third most popular smartphone in the UK at the moment, behind BlackBerry and Android-based devices (second and first respectively).
I can’t remember the original source of that stat, so you’ll have to take my word for it. Or not – the choice is yours.
Coupled with all the brouhaha about the lack of an iPhone app for GooglePlus, this got me thinking. Who has the most to lose from the lack of such an app?
I’ve seen a lot of comments on GooglePlus (and again, this is – I’m afraid – anecdotal) saying that Google needs to pull its finger out and get an iPhone app sorted out… and fast.
I’m not sure that’s a perspective I share.
The success of the smartphone phenomenon is down to the ability to use apps and other data-dependent services on the go. If those apps and services weren’t appealing, didn’t offer any value to the user, would the smartphone be as ubiquitous as it has become? I, for one, think not.
It is still too early to say whether GooglePlus will be a long-lasting success or just another flash in the social media pan. So far though, I think all the indications are pretty positive.
The lack of an iPhone app isn’t going to impede the success of GooglePlus. Some of the most active people I know on it are also iPhone users. They’re using it because it gives them value. Not because it is associated with one device or another.
The same might not be so true in reverse.
If Apple’s loyal iPhone customer base begin to see there are other smartphones that offer a better all-round data experience they may start to consider jumping ship rather than upgrading to a new iPhone next time their contract is up for renewal.
Apple risks, therefore, experiencing some of the same disintermediation that blights the network operators. In the UK Orange, Vodafone and O2 used to enjoy significant brand loyalty among their customers. Not any more. They are the plumbing that allows the cool stuff to flow. Nothing more.
If Apple finds GooglePlus (or anything for that matter) starts to come between the iPhone brand and its customers it will be the one who loses out ultimately.
The onus therefore, in my opinion, has to be on Apple to redouble its efforts in being more open, something where it still has much to prove.

Democracy, disintermediation & dining out at the all-day information buffet

Remember when you watched the TV news in the evening to hear about important stuff for the first time?

Remember when you read a newspaper in the morning so that you would feel informed of the weighty matters of the day?

I’ll bet neither of those things has happened to you for a while.

In pretty much every aspect of modern life, not just when it comes to the news, relationships between the public and the various providers of services and information have changed irrevocably.

You can call it disintermediation.

You can call it the democratisation of the means of publishing.

You can talk about citizen journalists if you really feel you need to.

But those of us who have regular contact with the internet no longer get our news in the old-school manner. Instead we use our RSS subscriptions, lists on twitter, messages via Facebook and other social media platforms and news websites to get our daily feed of news.

And we graze. A lot.

We take a mouthful of twitter-gossip, a bite of bloggetry, and chew on the wares of our favourite news sites. From this we get our fill of news.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a very important role for broadcast news and newspapers. But they’re rarely the first place you get to hear about something.

A growing number of people create content as well as consume it – blogs and tweets are some of the most obvious mechanisms for so doing, but there are others.

Ordinary people, for want of a less pejorative way of putting it, are now right in the centre of the flow of news and information, and are no longer reliant upon the traditional methods of staying informed. This is a trend (dare I even say phenomenon) that can be witnessed elsewhere.

How often does seeing one advertisement inspire you to go out and buy the product concerned?

Not often I imagine.

Would you buy something because a brand you like (or even “like”) is on Facebook? Again, probably not just off the back of that one thing, I expect.

Tweets, likes, reviews on blogs as well as in magazines (and their online variants), personal recommendations and so on, all go toward helping us make what we feel are informed choices about the goods and services we buy, and the ones we avoid. A lot of that information doesn’t come from what might be considered traditional sources, but is user-generated in the main.

Mobile phone companies are experiencing something similar. Do you feel much allegiance to your network provider? Despite statistics I’ve seen from research done by one of my clients (which indicates that two-thirds of us have been on the same network for at least three years) the likes of O2 and Vodafone can only dream of enjoying the kind of brand-kudos many of the handset makers revel in – Apple, BlackBerry, SonyEricsson for example.

It doesn’t stop there. The growing use of data-based services on smartphones, some of which will let you make VoIP calls (via 3G or wi-fi) effectively bypassing the carrier’s voice network completely, is another headache. People don’t get excited about the network they’re on – unless it stops working. The network has been usurped in people’s hearts by the app makers and handset manufacturers.

The common thread in all of this is that the old order is no more.

If your job involves managing customer relationships, or sales, or marketing, you ignore this at your peril.

If customers don’t see any perceived value in dealing with you they will simply ignore you and direct their attention to those people and organisations they feel an affinity for.

The challenge then is how to be valued in what is an undeniably information-rich world where there is no shortage of voices clamouring to be listened to.

You need to be present wherever your customers may be – and in every format they will be coming into contact with. You need to present a human face and treat people with the same respect that you would like to be treated with yourself.

Ultimately you want to be trusted and believable.

And it’s not rocket science, which makes it all the more noticeable when brands get it wrong.