How Google Can Leverage Facebook’s Biggest Weakness

Editor’s Note: Brenden Mulligan is a co-founder and designer at Cluster, a web and mobile app that enables users to create private social networks around interests and experiences. He previously created and sold ArtistData and Onesheet.

News broke yesterday that Vic Gundotra is leaving Google. Many have supposed that Google+ is dead in the water, and its overt failure is something Google can’t come back from. I think Google should look at this as a fresh start — and take the opportunity to implement private sharing in a way that users love.

When Google initially launched Plus, it was clear they just wanted users to move their sharing over from Facebook. Google+ didn’t give users a new way to interact, it just copied another social network’s model. As a result, Google’s social network attempt never truly took off. Few people actively share on it. No one checks it. Most, in general, ignore it.

This failure has been blamed on Google’s reputation for an inability to build social products (a reputation Apple shares as well). But looking deeper, I believe Google not only can build social products, but has a better shot than Facebook at building what the next generation of social networking users want.

People want private sharing

Sharing on the Internet is moving to be more contextual and private. The single biggest insight in all our work and research on Cluster this past year is that more and more, people don’t want to share everything with everyone, but instead share select content with select people. They no longer just want to broadcast, and in turn, are seeking an alternative to Facebook.

Startups are popping up left and right to experiment in this space. Recently, ephemeral messaging and anonymous sharing have been the loudest signs on this trend, but that’s because they’re the easiest solutions. If the problem is you don’t want photos to be accessible to everyone forever on Facebook, an easy solution is for them to disappear seconds after being shared. If users don’t want to be tied to things they posted years prior, or don’t want certain people seeing what they’re sharing, making the posts completely anonymous quickly solves it.

As Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures recently said, “It’s more about the control than the ephemerality. With Snapchat, I know who’s going to see this and I know it’s not going to move out beyond that place.”

But that doesn’t mean those are the right long-term solutions. When we’ve asked users about why they use these services, it’s largely because they are no better alternatives for contextual sharing. Between Facebook and Snapchat (or SMS or email), Facebook is not an option if they’re worried about privacy.

Facebook knows this

Facebook is an incredible organization with more data about patterns of human activity than any company on the planet. They see this coming and are clearly trying to figure out how the growing customer desire for contextual sharing will work within Facebook. “The [next big trend] that we’re seeing now is sharing with smaller groups,” says Mark Zuckerberg.

There are lot of small things Facebook is doing to prepare for this battle.

These are strategic initiatives to decouple a user’s public Facebook experience with these more private interactions. They’re starting to train users to not think of Facebook as one public place, but a set of contextual experiences.

Facebook’s biggest problem: public perception

Facebook isn’t recognized as a place to be private. It’s cemented in the average user’s mind as a place to share publicly. TechCrunch writer Josh Constine recently touched on this:

The public perception of Facebook was firmly rooted in the idea of sharing things your boss or family might see, and that everything posted was tattooed on your profile.

And given the rocky history with changing privacy policies, users don’t tend to trust Facebook even if what they’re sharing is marked as private. Constine writes:

We just might not be able to escape the lurking fear that even if Facebook offered an anonymous sharing option, posts would somehow come back to haunt us.

To get a better sense of real user perception of Facebook, we asked 16 user testing participants about their Facebook usage. Twelve responded with concerns over privacy and sharing visibility:

  • “I use Facebook when I want to share to a more general group of people and kind of put down those memories as a part of my timeline.” (Seattle)
  • “I don’t really post pics on Facebook because I’m nervous about who else would be seeing them.” (34, homemaker, San Francisco)
  • “Unless you don’t have the settings set up right on Facebook, then it’s all over the place.” (26, territory sales rep, Nashville)
  • “I’m always changing my settings on Facebook when I post a picture, like, ‘who can see this or not?’—I’m always getting grief from family, like, ‘why did you post that!?” (44, construction manager, San Francisco)
  • “A small group of friends you want to share specific photos with—not necessarily blasted on Facebook with, like, 400 people.” (37, teacher, San Francisco)
  • “[Private sharing] is possible to do on Facebook, but it’s harder for people to do and more confusing. It’s pretty much like you have to share with everyone or no one” (25, hospital assistant, San Francisco)
  • “My friends don’t care about certain pictures that my family would care about and vice versa.” (24, social media strategist, Nashville)
  • “Seems like the big thing with Facebook: the whole privacy thing is blowing up. Everyone sees so much, whether you want ‘em to or not.” (42, musician, Nashville)
  • “Sometimes you don’t want certain people to look at your photos, like, ‘hmm should I post this?” (19, student, San Francisco)
  • “We would share funny content, like, it could be a picture you took of one of my fraternity brothers dancing at the party or whatever just doing stupid stuff that you know you can’t put on Facebook.” (22, intern, Nashville)
  • “On Facebook everybody can see what you’re posting.” (42, self-employed, San Francisco)
  • “Facebook, I thought, was at its peak when it was only for college students.” (26, culinary student, San Francisco)

There is little doubt Facebook has enormous work to do to earn the trust of its users as a place to post privately.

Google’s biggest strength: public perception

Although not seen as the most innovative company in the world when it comes to social products, Google has consistently maintained consumer confidence for handling sensitive user information across a wide range of products.

Email might be the most private sharing of all, yet hundreds of millions of people communicate daily through Gmail. Google Docs are used by countless individuals and businesses to share and store private documents and make small team collaboration easier. GoogleTalk is a massively used private messaging service. Google Hangouts is a small group collaborative conferencing service. Google even has a product called Groups, which is a mostly forgotten version of the web forums of web 1.0.

The point is, not only do people trust Google to keep their private information private, but Google has a bunch of products where users are already doing this.

Google’s good idea that never took off

Even though Google+ wasn’t that impressive, there were a few nuggets of wisdom within. I’ve already mentioned Hangouts, which launched with Google+, but the other is a feature most people have heard of, but no one uses: Google+ Circles.

google circlces

Surprisingly, during our recent user testing, people from all walks of life and geographies referenced Google+ Circles. Typically, they appreciate the concept but don’t use the product. Two examples:

  • “The concept of a group space makes me think of the whole Google+ thing, with, like, adding to circles and whatnot—which is a good concept, but nobody bought into it so it didn’t work.” (26, culinary student, San Francisco)
  • “The first thing I thought about [when thinking of small groups] were the circles on Google, but I think Google+ is forced and kinda silly.” (29, administrator, Nashville)

While the idea of Circles is solid, it got mixed up in the execution of Google+. Users are expected to set up these groups without any real reason why, except some potential future benefit. And all within an uninspiring social network.

While the current iteration of Circles failed, the concept made perfect sense to users and fits the current social networking trend.

What Google should do

Google has an arsenal of quality products trusted by users for private, contextual sharing. The next step is to fit them together in a way that makes sense to a user looking for a Facebook alternative. I have absolutely no insight into what’s going on at Google, but I would start with focusing on a new product simply called Google Groups (renaming the existing “Groups” product to Google Forums).

Google Groups would be a standalone mobile and web experience where users could:

  • send messages (powered by Google Talk)
  • video chat (powered by Google Hangouts)
  • share files (powered by Google Drive)
  • post photos and videos (a mix of Google Photo Party and a simplified form of Google+)

The groups themselves would be an evolution of Google Circles. All activity would be historically recorded and only accessible to the people who are specifically in the group. It would be completely private, accessible only by invitation.

At Cluster we think we’re working on an interesting approach to private group sharing, but our Achilles heel is that we lack the massive installed user bases of Facebook and Google. While Facebook might initially appear to be better positioned because of its historical success with social products, its public perception puts it in a vulnerable position, which Google, if it’s smart, will take advantage of.

It should be an interesting few years.