Is Google's big bet on Google+ too risky?

Google is aggressively integrating Google+ across its products, but the social networking site's success is far from assured

Google is ending 2011 with a cliffhanger: Will Google+ succeed? And if it does not, how much damage will the company suffer as a result?

Google has made it clear that Google+, far from being a stand-alone social networking site, is rather a much broader and more ambitious initiative that carries implications for the company's other products.

Seen initially as Google's latest attempt to crack social networking, Google+ is instead envisioned as a master application that will link Google products and give them a common social layer and mechanism for users to share photos, videos, recommendations, maps, product reviews, site links, ratings, blog posts and other content.

While people have been able to pick and choose the Google applications they use, Google+ may become almost inescapable because it will be woven tightly into the other apps.

This is a risky move on Google's part, because if Google+ doesn't catch on, or even worse, if it were to go down in flames in a privacy fiasco, the entire stack of Google applications could be negatively impacted.

The possibility that Google+ could fail is real. While Google has some extremely successful products -- its search engine, Gmail, YouTube and ad network to name a few -- it has also had its share of failures, especially in the social networking arena.

For example, the Buzz microblogging and social networking application not only bombed with users but landed the company in a privacy debacle that led to a stiff penalty from the U.S. government and the retirement of the product.

"Success for Google+ is by no means assured," said industry analyst Greg Sterling.

Although Google+ was introduced in limited release in June, and became widely available only since September, Google CEO Larry Page has made the bold bet that Google+ will succeed, and has called for its broad integration with the other Google products, a process that has already started and will continue next year.

In just a few short months, Google+ has gained various levels of integration with YouTube, Blogger, Gmail, Picasa Web, Reader, Google Music and the search engine. Some of those links have generated complaints.

For example, to set up a Google+ account, people must agree to have it linked with Picasa Web, which includes replacing their Picasa Web user name, in many cases a pseudonym, with their Google+ profile name, which Google requires be the user's real name.

The integration with Reader involved shutting down the native social content-sharing features of the popular RSS feed manager and shifting the functionality in modified form to Google+. That means Reader users who want to continue sharing RSS feed content with others need to set up a Google+ account, which also implies switching from their reader user name to their Google+ real name. The Google+/Reader integration proved very unpopular with some vocal users.

Google probably realizes that to give Google+ a fighting chance of becoming a dominant platform, it must integrate it across the company's product stack, Sterling said. Otherwise, as a stand-alone social network, Google+ is unlikely to make a dent in Facebook, most of whose users are unlikely to abandon the service for Google+, he said. Although the Google+ user base is in the tens of millions, that is only a fraction of Facebook's 850 million-plus membership.

However, there is a risk involved in being too pushy with the Google+ links.

"By pushing the Google+ integrations so aggressively, Google could be forcing certain things that don't work out so well, or that people reject because they perceive it thrust upon them. It could backfire," Sterling said.

Page seems convinced that the Google+ Circles mechanism for managing how users share content is simple enough for everyone to grasp, so that they will always share what they post only with their intended audience.

But there are already some signs that Circles might not be as intuitive as Page thinks. None other than a Google engineer accidentally posted a public rant criticizing, ironically, Google+, on his Google+ profile. His intention was to share it with only a limited group of contacts.

How much of an issue this will become is unclear, because, based on anecdotal evidence and market research reports, it seems Google+ is currently being used mostly by tech-savvy people.

"The level of adoption right now is questionable. I see a lot of early adopter technologists and media folks, but I don't see the mainstream there yet," said Jeremiah Owyang, an Altimeter Group analyst.

In other words, Google+ still hasn't experienced the massive, intense usage of a site like Facebook from hundreds of millions of people with more limited knowledge of how Web applications work. It remains to be seen whether privacy complaints will erupt if Google+ reaches that level of usage.

Page is also pushing his troops to mesh products with Google+ at a time when key questions regarding Google+ remain unanswered. Already there have been a number of loud controversies associated with Google+, including some mistakes Google has acknowledged.

Open questions include whether external developers will embrace Google+, which at this point doesn't offer much in the way of APIs (application programming interfaces) for them to create tools and applications for the site, a key element in the success of services like Facebook and Twitter.

On the enterprise side, Google is using internally a workplace version of Google+, but it remains to be seen whether Google Apps customers will like it and find it useful. Another pending promise is letting people use pseudonyms.

Page's urgency isn't altogether surprising. When he took over as CEO in April, he made it clear that upgrading Google's position in social networking would be a priority. He clearly sensed that Facebook had become a very dangerous rival on various fronts, not just social networking.

Facebook has become a leading online ad seller. It has become the world's preferred online meeting place and playground. It has struck partnerships with players big and small, including Microsoft, Amazon, eBay and Netflix. It holds troves of knowledge about its users, most of whom use their real names on the site.

"It's all about identity because whoever controls identity controls ads. Whoever can figure out who likes what, who responds to what, then can serve more targeted ads," Owyang said.

Clearly, Page feels Google has no time to waste in recovering lost ground. The Facebook threat is too real. Is he overdoing it? Is it too risky giving such an important role to a new product? The answers to those questions will become clearer next year. Stay tuned.

Juan Carlos Perez covers search, social media, online advertising, e-commerce, web application development, enterprise cloud collaboration suites and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

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