Google could still win social — by redefining what social means

Google CEO Larry Page

Above: Google CEO Larry Page

This is the second in a series looking at the state of social at Facebook’s 10th anniversary. Yesterday, I looked at how Facebook is being too conservative and isn’t taking big risks

Disclosure: I’m long Google ($GOOG) and Apple ($AAPL). At the moment, I have no position in Facebook ($FB), but I have been in and out in the past. I have not traded in Twitter ($TWTR).

“Social” in the online world has long been narrowly defined. For all of the time that we spend on social networks, what’s the ultimate return? The only meaningful impact of all of the time I spend on Facebook is that I stay in better touch with people I would have lost all contact with. Although that’s not nothing, how much does that really improve my life? Twitter and Quora have had a much bigger impact on my life, but that is for reasons specific to me. (I’ll take a closer look at Twitter in a future post.) Google+ has had almost no impact on my life.

But social is so much bigger than what we’ve defined it: status updates, sharing links, and sharing photos. Facebook blows everyone else away when it comes to that; but it’s not enough.

There’s a big difference between what Facebook is — what I call explicit social — and what social could be. For all of the data that Facebook has, it could not accurately capture who my closest friends are. That’s because a lot of that activity happens in the physical world.

Google is in a much better position to capture and use that information. So far, what we’ve seen is a head-on Facebook compete. You rarely win taking a strong competitor head on. But if Google were to stitch together the data it has across Gmail, Calendar, Maps, Navigation, Local, Android, Now, and its other properties, it could redefine the space and create a much better, richer social experience.

Let’s consider a hypothetical scenario: setting up dinner with a business contact.

I use Google Talk (now Hangouts) to suggest that we do dinner. We then have to figure out where to go. Then we have to figure out how to get there. There might be traffic along the way.

Figuring out where to go is a function of our individual preferences, locations, and relationship dynamics. I don’t like seafood or sushi. I prefer Indian and Italian. But I just had Indian last night. I’m meeting up with a VC? I guess I’m going down to Menlo Park. (Unless it’s Benchmark and Bill Gurley is in their San Francisco office this week; then our dinner should be scheduled to minimize travel.) An entrepreneur wants to have dinner? That’ll probably be in San Francisco, where I live. Even with its existing data, Google could make reasonable recommendations. If it tweaked its products — for example, assigning actual points of interest in Google Calendar’s “where” field — it would have much better data. The recommendations would be filtered based on what’s currently open. Monday? Restaurants that are closed on Mondays wouldn’t show.

The day of our dinner comes. We’re booked at 7:30. We probably use Google Maps to get there. I’m running late. (This is a hypothetical; I believe being late is extremely rude and inconsiderate.) Currently, this involves frantic texting, often while you’re in an otherwise stressful situation. I’m stuck in traffic. Do I take the risk of texting, or do I keep my companion in the dark? Google could take my position data and automatically update the calendar information. A Google Now alert could automatically tell my companion I’m running late and show an ETA, because Google Navigation knows where I am. Based on my companion’s calendar and the degree of my delay, it could suggest alternatives: cancel dinner, accept the delay. If we accept the delay, my companion could see my position in real time.

We arrive at the restaurant at different times. Is my companion here? Are they seated? I was recently having lunch with a friend at ALTA CA with a friend. I went in and got seated. Fifteen minutes later, I get a message from my friend saying that he was here, but I wasn’t. It turns out that we didn’t see each other. He was behind a pillar. Based on the position of our phones, Google knows that we’re in the same location. It could tell me Mark is already here when I walk in.

The next time I open up Google Maps, Google asks me to rate the place I navigated to. (In a very simple way, just like Uber asks you to rate a driver.) Google could collect more ratings in a week than Yelp has gathered in the last 10 years. That data can go back into making better recommendations for me.

This is just one extended example. There are many more. To this day, Facebook doesn’t have an easy way for me to see which of my friends will be in DC when I’m visiting in April. That’s a very meaningful problem; Google could solve that.

Better data could also be used to create new forms of advertising and pricing. Let’s take airlines. They often fly with empty seats. They’d prefer to fly those planes full. Operating the flight is a sunk cost; if they can charge more than the incremental fuel and processing the reservation, they win. But they can’t offer cheaper fares because if they publicly lower prices, they might lose revenue.

Social data could be used to make personalized offers. Virgin America has low loads to New York this weekend. The way that airlines typically handle that is sell the inventory to opaque providers like Hotwire or Priceline’s name-your-own-price service. But that model is quite inconvenient to customers because there is too much risk. Virgin America could make that offer available only to people on Google with friends in New York. Instead of publishing its fares widely in the reservation systems where a business traveler who would pay full fare gets a cheap seat, they could target that offer only to specific leisure travelers.

When the offer is presented, it could be presented with the names of your friends who are in New York and places that you might want to go. Instead of a generic “here’s a cheap flight to New York,” it’s “here’s a cheap flight and some reasons why you might want to go to New York.” That improves my social life and provides a new market for airlines.

These things are all technically feasible. But implementing them requires careful thought.

Privacy is an important consideration. All of these products need to be carefully designed to minimize risk of leaking sensitive data.

There was a big blow up recently when Google included the ability to message people by name instead of requiring that I know someone’s email address. That’s an artifact of how we’ve been trained to deal with machines for the last few decades; we need to use arbitrary phone numbers and email address strings because older technologies needed us to use unique identifiers because that’s the way computers work. But if you think even further back (when there were actual human operators), you’d pick up the phone and say “I want to talk to Mabel.” The operator would connect you.* Technology has now advanced to the point where we can bring back the experience that is closer to the way humans actually work. VC Hunter Walk has a great post on why this is a non-issue.

The biggest challenge is finding the right way to build this. Small companies can build the technology, but without scale and an enormous amount of data, it won’t be meaningful. If my friends aren’t on the system regularly, it’s hard to offer a social product. Big companies, like Google, have the scale and the data, but it’s often hard to get various product groups to work together. I lived that when I worked at Microsoft and Aol. It requires a commitment at the very top to do the right thing for the user instead of spending time on intra-company rivalries. Fortunately, CEO Larry Page has made it clear he wants to win social.

But I’d prefer that Google and Facebook compete on building the bigger picture of social. Instead of social being just about bragging about our great lives, social could help us lead better lives by reducing the many small friction points.

* I’m not old enough to actually have experienced this; I’m basing this on my experience watching classic movies.

Rakesh Agrawal is a consultant focused on the intersection of local, social, mobile and payments. He is a principal analyst at reDesign mobile. Previously, he launched local, mobile and search products for Microsoft, Aol and washingtonpost.com. He blogs at http://redesignmobile.com and tweets at @rakeshlobster.


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