An update on Google+ for Brands

Below is a draft of an updated POV on Google+ I've drafted for the perspective of brand marketing opportunities.  Thoughts, suggestions or critiques are welcome.

Now that Google+ is nearly two months old, I wanted to provide an update on how Google’s ambitious new social project is doing, what new features + functionality have been added to the product since launch, and how these new elements impact the outlook for brands. Despite entering a competitive landscape, Google+ has received intense attention from Google users, media and brands. In just a few shorts weeks over 25 million people have been estimated to have tried out the network. Google has met the enthusiasm with a barrage of developments that hint to the potential of Google+ moving forward.

A more powerful +1 button for publishers 
When initially launched, Google’s +1 button for publishers had an ambiguous purpose. Consumers clicking the button could potentially improve a site’s search ranking, but there was no direct connection to Google+. Now when users click the +1 button they will not only affect the page-rank of the site, but will also have the opportunity to share the web-page directly to their Google+ stream. Google+ users will also see which of their friends have clicked a +1 button right next to the button on sites. The behavior will be very similar to clicking the Facebook ‘like’ button, both in it’s on-site representation and by displaying a photo and descriptive text snippet in a user’s feed. This will give users much more reason to click +1 buttons on content around the web.

Considering both the SEO and social amplification power of the new +1 button, all brands and publishers should be preparing to include +1 buttons on their sites prominently. There are a few steps website managers need to take to maximize the benefit:
  • Update the +1 button code on their sites to display the in-line social graph info 
  • Include the proper HTML mark-up on your web-pages to specify which pictures and copy are auto-generated when users share to Google+ from the +1 button on your site
Extended reach through massive Gmail community
When Google+ launched many people were surprised to find that it had no connection to Gmail. Now, however, Google has taken the first steps towards integrating with the popular email client by integrating Google+ updates into the new Gmail people widget. When looking at an email in Gmail, your contacts most recent public Google+ post will be visible in the sidebar along with their other profile information. This extends the reach of Google+ status updates way beyond the Google+ user-base out to the millions of people who use Gmail daily, making Google+ content sharing much more attractive to brands.

A more social YouTube experience with Google+ Hangouts
From the beginning, Google+ users have been able to load YouTube videos inside Hangouts (group video chats). Additionally, now when watching a video on YouTube users are invited to launch the video inside a Google+ Hangout to share the viewing experience with up to 10 friends. Like the Gmail integration, this exposure on one of Google’s most popular properties will help boost awareness of Google+. This is also a potentially valuable Call-To-Action for brands to promote on their YouTube channels: not just to watch a brand spot, but to invite friends to watch, enjoy and discuss along with one another.

Increased time spent inside Google+ through games
Google+’s biggest advancement so far may be the launch of Google+ Games. The games platform is very similar to Facebook’s, focusing on casual social games like Bejeweled that challenge friends to beat each other’s high scores and more. Google noticeably kept games alerts from infiltrating the regular Google+ feed; rather it’s information streams are kept on a separate feed users see when playing games. While less integrated, games will still ensure that users spend more time inside Google+ and return to the network more often. They could also be a potential way for brands to offer engaging experiences to users, once the developer platform is opened to all.

But official brand accounts are still missing (for the most part)
The most notable development about Google+ so far, though, may be that Google still hasn’t made any announcements about how brands will exist on the network. Google has actually gone out of their way to remove brand pages that pop up, or work with brands to transition their pages to a representative employee. So far the only hint that brand pages are coming soon, besides Google’s continuous promise, has been the launch of the Ford Motor Company test account. Ford notes that the profile is an early test of Google+ business accounts, and is experimenting with a number of Google+ features like Hangouts. Despite the early access Ford doesn’t appear to have any special features or functionality on their page yet. However, many additions like Google Analytics and advertising integration are expected to come, and may already exist on the back-end. Google will presumably also look at adding other features like brand directories, enterprise level moderation tools, integration with Google Places and more.

One last new Google+ feature that could be related to Google’s plans for businesses is the addition of “verified name” tags. Though the certification process is unclear, Google has begun tagging profiles of some celebrities (such as actress Alyssa Milano) and media personalities with a “verified name” designation. This certification could be used in the future to make sure users know which brand profiles are official, for trust and privacy purposes.

Though Google+ is boasting some big usage numbers so far, it’s important to remember that we are still in the very early days for the fledgling network. As Google continues integrating Google+ into its other properties and release new functionality I expect both Google+ and the other products to benefit from cross-promotion and powerful social functionality. It’s also important to note, however, that the competition is not standing still. Facebook just recently announced new privacy features that replicate Google+ circle functionality, and Twitter is quickly making photo sharing a bigger part of its web product. Social media is evolving faster than ever right now, and brands need to continue to pay attention closely to developments to identify the best ways to provide value and engage with their audiences.