Social search and advertising: Google’s endgame?

A few weeks back, Jeremiah Owyang wrote a piece “Revealing Google’s Stealth Social Network Play.” In it he detailed the tactical benefits of a combined of Google Reader, Wave, and Sidewiki in a back-door strategy aimed at social networking. And more to the point, to realizing the advertising opportunities around social networking.

Google has been neither a leader nor a even a decent case study in social networking. It’s home-grown social network, Orkut, is popular elsewhere but not here. Open Social is still very real, but is largely invisible to the public. And when it comes to making use of the social graph, Google profiles are a distant cousin to Facebook and even Linkedin profiles. Google’s products seem to betray a distinct affinity for information over the more popular and user-friendly experiences that have resulted in the conversational turn in social networking: Facebook status and activity feeds, and twitter.

But with Google Wave, Jeremiah’s observation looks spot on. Wave not only facilitates a potentially game-changing departure from old-school email, but also supports the export and re-embedding of “wavelets” outside the Wave experience. These wavelets function as apps, and some of the early extensions featured have already begun to spark interest among developers who see Wave as an application platform turbo-charged by access to Google search, contacts/address book, and distributability. If successful, Google Wave is poised to serve as a platform for distributed social networking.

Brynn Evans writes today about Google social search, in Why There’s Nothing to Fear in Social Search. Social search may seem innocuous enough, and the video posted on the company’s blog contains a not-so-subtle pitch for Google profiles (the more you related sites and services you add, the better Google can serve you!), but the flip side of an improved search experience is of course advertising. Namely, social advertising.

Now, this is a nut that many have failed to crack, try as they have. But Facebook’s failed Beacon was a sign of things to come. There’s money in the feed. Feed-based advertising, which I liken to product placement in mainstream media, promises (for now) to leverage the rich social context and realtime conversational power of activity feeds and twitter. Now that twitter has offloaded its advertising problem to Microsoft’s Bing and Google, it can worry about making twitter a richer experience, while delegating advertising to the search engines. But reconstructing the conversation, as Adina Levin notes in her post Search the conversation, and as many of the semantic, sentiment, and influence relevance companies I’ve spoken with will attest, is all the more difficult the shorter the message and the thinner the relationship.

Which is possibly where Wave might create more than a ripple for Google’s alogorithmagicians and data miners. Google has lacked access to the information that can be extracted from mined social actions. Wavelets, embedded on end-user and brand blogs, sites, and elsewhere (eg phones, participating social networks), could be used to create an index of social activity. For wave interactions are captured by Google (which hosts the original wavelet and sees all interactions that occur on it).

A social action index built on the back end of Wave could be combined with search indexes of conversational messages from twitter (and possibly other activity feeds: Myspace, Facebook?). Add to those, indexing of blog comments and sidewiki, Google reader subscriptions and its comments, likes, and shares, plus the rich social graph information provided by Google contacts, and you have what looks to me like a distributed, decentralized, gold-mine of search queries, documents, conversations, relationships, and activities. All built on an advertising platform.

If Google could auction off ads in realtime, for printing to the page around conversations, filtered and qualified by social interaction data and constrained perhaps by relationships, it could conceivably personalize targeted advertising and also push a new class of social sales and offers to the user’s social graph. That is, reaching friends through those most trusted and respected for their influence in their areas of expertise.

The grail of advertising is not one to one relationships with customers, but access through the right person to a whole network of friends. In or around their own words and at the time most likely to get attention. Realtime is solving the attention problem by capturing it when it’s being paid. But it takes a company with a lot of social data to connect the dots and provide social relevance. Google is looking a lot smarter of late.

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  • aslevin

    Not sure about the role of wave architecturally in the scenario, but the advertising scenario and business model seems right.

    Where Google typically does well is aggregating information across a wide variety of sources, being algorithmically good at showing what's relevant, and selling ads on their site & others. I see their back-door strategy in a way that is similar but different than the way Jeremiah does. Where I see the leverage is less in individual apps, such as sidewiki and wave. Instead, I see leverage in driving standards that accelerate the progress toward decentralized social networking, which increase Google's potential value as an aggregator and syndicator of ads.

    The reason I'm skeptical about wave is its social model which seems so… inchoate… in its early form. If anything (in its current form) wave is interesting for in-depth small-group collaboration with ad hoc groups – which doesn't seem to me to draw as interesting a social graph, as, say, well-adopted Twitter lists. It's interesting secondarily as an embedding tool only if there are primary uses that are well-adopted.

  • Janet Fouts

    I'm thinkin' that Google just learned what they needed to from the “Beacon Fail” and will implement a deeper and more personally invasive experiment of their own. Will it be Wave? I dunno, I need to see what people do with it to really get what it's capable of vs the hype. I definitely believe there will be more and more narrowing of privacy, no matter what the official line is.

    The next question is; as our networks expand beyond our really close friends how much value is there to mining that extended network? We may not know each other or even influence each other at all.

  • Steve Evans

    It has to be one of their end games but I'm not sure it ends with social search ads. Recommendation ads, ads based on your social graph and ads based on what your connections do/like are still not as relevant to the user as ads based on their own likes/habits/activities online. Finding a way to include the social data without actually diluting the quality of accuracy of targeted ads is going to be tricky for Google (I think).

  • mleis

    Another great post, Chan. Really Makes me think again about just how much of the Web happens via Google. One phrase that really stuck out to me, that I think about often, is just how invisible Google is to many end-user experiences. While MySpace has faded from attention, and Facebook tries to gain as much real estate across the Web as they can, Google is already way ahead. Consider how much Web real estate is owned by Google. Across heavy opensocial properties like MySpace, Orkut. Across blogs with either blogger, Google analytics, Reader, banners. Now aggressively indexing (a phrase they've made feel innocuous as they store every bit of data) Twitter.

    Chrome and Wave are merely alpha platforms experimenting with all the data and intelligence they've collected, and how little they can give back to people in exchange for that much more direct input.

    One to toss back to you to think about:
    What if Google levied a $15/month Internet tax on every user, based on your five most used IP addresses / ISPs, and if you didn't pay it, they would not allow you access to any page Google code sits on. What would the Web look like?

  • public records

    i think it”s a good site and a blue sky … permit posts not only to share activity updates across social networks, ..