Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Is Google+ what we've been waiting for?

No doubt by now you've heard about Google+ ("Google plus"). It's essentially Google's latest stab at trying to topple Facebook as the global social networking leader. While Facebook holds a lot of promise in the way of recruiting, selection, and other core HR functions, its use has been sporadic due to a number of issues. Can Google+ give us the functionality we've always wanted--and stick around long enough to be a major player?

If you haven't heard of Google+ (or haven't read enough), you can get more information here or here or here or here. Or heck, just watch their intro video. By some estimates it already has around 10 million users, which is pretty amazing considering it only came out a few weeks ago, although it's not anywhere near Facebook which claims it has 750 million.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let's first review why Facebook isn't the holy grail we once thought it could be.

At first blush, a public social networking site holds a heck of a lot of promise. It allows organizations to learn more about potential candidates, things beyond a test score. It allows people to network, potentially increasing the speed and efficiency of information sharing. And it allows applicants to learn more about organizations--faster and more informally than a career webpage.

This all sounds good in theory. And some organizations have made Facebook work for them, by using things like fan pages. But for many, the promise has never been fulfilled. Let's look at the main reasons why, and how Google+ may be the answer.

The main problem is that on Facebook, there's just one you. When you post something on Facebook, it goes to all your connections. Friends, family, co-workers, acquaintances--everyone, unless they've "hidden" you. (Yes, you can post to a smaller group but it's a pain and who actually does this?) This has several implications:

- You watch what you say. Do really want to say the same thing to your friends that would to your family? Do you really want to post that picture for everyone to see?

- It increases "lurkers", who simply read but never post, thus not being true participants in the online social interaction.

- This hyper-openness serves as a barrier to some users, who are simply uncomfortable sharing their life with people.

- You have friend request anxiety. You dread getting an email that your boss or someone you don't really know wants to be "friends" on Facebook. If you say no you feel like a jerk, if you say yes then you're openness goes down a notch. What fun is that?

Google+ deals with all this by allowing you to create something called "circles" where you add individuals to certain groups (e.g., friends, colleagues, family) which thereby allows you to post things to only those groups. It even allows you to view your own profile as if you were someone else (IMHO one of the most innovative features).

What are the implications of these circles? There are many:

1. People are more likely to create profiles. Along with the increased attention to security attracting new people, once it gets out that you can manage your social identity much better (and easier) with Google+, it's more likely that someone will create a profile to begin with.

2. Individuals will be more likely to accept invitations to connect from organizations and recruiters. Why? Because they'll be able to manage what information gets shared with those individuals.

3. The information employers have access to will be less--but of higher quality. Assuming people think before posting (yes I'm giving people the benefit of the doubt here), while there may be less information on a profile for an employer to view, it will be more relevant. Instead of posts about children or parties, it will be opinions or accomplishments--things that might actually be job related and much less likely to get employers into legal hot water.

4. It could help with referrals, as individuals will feel more comfortable sharing information about jobs--or their own interest in jobs--without fear of what their management might think.

5. It could give potential applicants a more realistic job preview. With the concern about tanking your job lessened, people will be more likely to be open about the good--and the bad--things about where they work.

You can envision how Google+ has broader applicability for organizations. It allows organizations to create employee-only groups. It allows employees to create informal social groups--or more formal interest groups. It adds another way for colleagues to share knowledge. And it helps create that intangible bond that connects co-workers in a way that meetings and off-sites never can.

So there is quite a bit of promise, but there are still many questions. Could Facebook add design elements to mimic aspects of Google+? Absolutely (and I strongly suspect they are in the process of doing just that). Could Google fail to attract enough followers to its new site to make it the killer app that Facebook is? Sure; in fact there's a good example of this in Orkut (although it is quite popular in Brazil and India). Are there examples of many social networking sites that have flared and fizzled? You bet (heard of MySpace?). And the juggernaut that is Facebook is not to be ignored.

But there are reasons to believe that this could be the real deal. Google spent a lot of time testing this thing out and appears to be listening intently to users on issues from design to privacy--something Facebook has been grilled about for as long as I can remember. And I didn't even touch on the other features of Google+, such as real-time group video chat.

The bottom line is when it comes to websites, most of us are followers. All it takes is your friends and colleagues to start posting somewhere else (heck, it's just another bookmark), and before you know it Facebook could start looking a lot like another casualty in the hyper-competitive web wars. Fortunately, organizations will be the better for it.

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