If there’s an opening for Google in the crowded social networking market already dominated by Facebook, it might be in helping users navigate through their many friend groups, according to a presentation from Paul Adams, the lead for user experience research at the company. Adams’ report comes at a critical time for the company, as it is purportedly working on a full-fledged social product to be launched later this year.
Through studying the nuances of social interaction both off- and online, Google researchers found that people typically have between four and six friend groups and only between two and six “close” friends, he said. College friends don’t necessarily mix with work friends, who don’t necessarily mix with a person’s family.
While that’s an almost absurdly intuitive conclusion, it’s a difficult problem to design a product around.
Facebook, while offering friend groups, has a fairly rigid interpretation of identity. “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity,” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg tells reporter David Kirkpatrick in the book “The Facebook Effect.”
Adams argues, despite this, that people still behave differently around different groups of friends.
“People have multiple facets of identity,” Adams says. “There is not one proﬁle that ﬁts for all the people in their life. People appear differently to different audiences. They act one way with their family, they act another way in work, and they act another way with their best friends.”
Adams pointed out all of the different problem scenarios Facebook users run into if the different parts of their identities end up blurring. One teacher the company interviewed, for example, realized that photos of her with her close friends at a gay bar were being exposed to her 10-year-old students.
Furthermore, while social networks like Facebook tend to be good at strengthening weak ties, they don’t tend to do as much for close relationships. Friend IM chat lists tend to list people in alphabetical order, not by how often you interact with them.
And in what could influence how social products are commercialized, Adams debunked the myth of “influencers” or the theory that if a company or brand reaches out to a small subset of powerful people, they can tip a market in their favor. In reality, Adams says, close friends’ habits and purchasing decisions have the greatest potential to change a consumer’s buying decisions.
Right now, Facebook is staking territory for itself in brand advertising, or ads that come earlier in a consumer’s decision-making cycle. In contrast, Google owns the ads at the end of the buying cycle and near the point of purchase. This market is more lucrative on a per-ad basis, as costs-per-click for Google’s search ads can often be twice as much as for the same keyword or “interest” on Facebook’s network. However, Facebook is betting the market for ads that generate intent may be 10 or 11 times as large as the market for Google’s more action-oriented ads.
Still, both companies recognize that the experiences of social and search are merging and that their resulting business opportunities may converge as well. Hence, Google’s scramble to make a serious play for social.