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How Google Plus Is Shaking Up Social Media and Why It Matters

It’s not news that social media has taken the web by storm. At the time of writing, six of the top ten websites in Canada (by my count) are social media sites according to the Internet ranking site Alexa.com. And as people spend a greater percentage of their online time within these social environments, it is becoming increasingly necessary for businesses of all stripes – law firms included – to devote more resources to establishing and maintaining a meaningful presence in several different places on the web.

The battle for supremacy between the dominant players in this space – Facebook, Google, Twitter and to a lesser extent Linkedin – is also heating up. From late 2009 until summer 2011 Google had an agreement to include Twitter results in Google’s search engine results as part of something called “realtime search”. However, the two parties could not come to agreement on renewal terms and that service went offline last summer. More recently, on January 10, 2012 Google announced “Google Search Plus Your World” (a.k.a “SPYW”) which incorporates results from Google’s own social media product Google+ (pronounced “Google Plus”) into a separate column in the search results page. I have included a screen capture below showing an example of this new approach using the search term “business” (at present the service only seems to be displaying results for very generic terms although I anticipate it will get much more nuanced very quickly).

Click on image to enlarge.

Negative reaction to this new Google-centric approach towards including social media results has been instant and fierce, both from Google’s competitors and from less partisan observers who feel that “Google just broke itself” by pushing its own wares instead of delivering the most relevant results. A group of Twitter and Facebook developers working under the banner Focus On The User are attempting to hoist Google with its own petard by demonstrating just how skewed the new service is. As they describe it:

We created a tool that uses Google’s own relevance measure—the ranking of their organic search results—to determine what social content should appear in the areas where Google+ results are currently hardcoded. All of the information in this demo comes from Google itself, and all of the ranking decisions are made by Google’s own algorithms.

If that all sounds a bit confusing, have a look at this video which does head to head comparisons of various searches using both Google’s new service and those from Focus on The User’s cheekily-named “Don’t Be Evil” tool. (Fair warning – the video 9 minutes long. That said, it makes a compelling case in that time).

It’s not hard to understand why Google’s competitors are unhappy. Knowledgeable commentators like Wired Magazine senior writer Stephen Levy have called the change a “startling transformation of the company’s flagship product, Google Search, into an amplifier of social content.” And later:

Search, in short, should appear to be like Caesar’s wife, above reproach. When using its algorithmic wizardry to deeply integrate social information into its search experience, it behooves Google to avoid even a whiff of bias. With SPYW, though, the odor is unmistakable. No matter how you cut it, the search engine now increases the value of participating in Google+.

Likewise, Canada’s Mitch Joel recently commented on the changes as follows:

At this point, comparing Google+ to Facebook and Twitter is probably a silly notion simply because Google has the ability to make Google+ the underlying social platform within its many applications (Android, Gmail, Google Docs, Picasa, Google Maps, Google News, YouTube, etc. -).

Joel goes on to say that for business, this means it’s “critical” to ensure your Google+ business page is up to date and comprehensive.

For many firms that already struggle to find the time, resources or inclination to keep their firm website somewhat current, the notion of piling on additional content-creation and site-updating duties hither and yon all over the web seems frivolously extravagant, naively unattainable, or both. But those pesky Alexa stats don’t lie. Social media isn’t going away – it’s getting stronger, and the divide between the firms who “get this stuff” and those who don’t is becoming sharper. Google+ has the potential to widen this divide even further, and very few Canadian law firms are doing anything on this platform yet. Firms that want to remain (or become) highly visible online may not have the luxury of abstaining much longer.

 

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