Sure, I Could Join a Google-Based Social Network — But Why?

After much rumor and speculation about a new Google (s goog) social feature of some kind, the Internet giant finally unveiled what it calls its “+1” service today. The service — as Om explained in his post on the launch — is an attempt to add “social validation” to search, via Google’s version of the Facebook “like” button. While these kinds of social cues may help improve search, however, the move also appears to be the latest attempt to jump-start some kind of Google-oriented social network, something that seems to have substantially less likelihood of success, at least as it’s currently configured. Why? Because people don’t go to Google to be social.
As Om describes in his post, and as Search Engine Land lays out in more detail, the main feature of the +1 system is that it allows users to vote on search results or ads. Their vote is then displayed next to the result for anyone in their Google-based social network.
And what is that Google network? Good question. At this point, it’s people in your Gmail contacts, people you have agreed to connect to through Google Talk, people you subscribe to through the company’s RSS reader, and people you follow on the Buzz social network (you can see your social circle here).
At this point, Google tries to glue together all these different sources of contacts, friends and follows through your Google Profile — and it’s no coincidence that when you enable the +1 features, one of the first things the company tries to get you to do is either set up a profile, if you don’t already have one, or update your profile, if you do have one. The biggest problem, as with so much of what Google has tried to do with social features and services so far (yes, I’m looking at you, Buzz) is that Google profiles aren’t really connected to anything in any real way.

Yes, I can link my Twitter account and my Facebook page to my Google profile, but it’s just a simple HTML link that someone could click — assuming someone actually visited my Google profile page, which as far as I can tell no one ever does. The reality is that nothing I do within the network of Google services affects or is connected to anything I do elsewhere in any real way, and that includes the places where I spend a lot of time, such as blogs and Twitter and Facebook. And that’s a big part of the problem.
So yes, it’s good that Google is adding social signals to search — that’s a smart thing to do. And like Om, I am kind of wondering why they didn’t do it a lot sooner, since search is still 90 percent of what Google does (from a financial sense, at least). But that focus is part of the problem: everything the company does is still seen through the lens of search, which is why it has so much trouble understanding how social features work (see Buzz) and sees social as something that can be “bolted on” to its existing services.
Search may be interesting to Google, and useful to millions of people, but it’s useful in a purely utilitarian sort of way — not in any kind of social way. In some ways, in fact, those two purposes are completely antithetical to each other, which is why no one thinks of Google as a social destination. And I could be wrong, but I don’t think that improving search results in some kind of theoretical way is enough motivation to get people to play in Google’s version of a social network. Not yet, at least.
The company says it is considering adding links and connections to Twitter and other services in future iterations of the +1 service, and I hope it does so soon, because in its current incarnation, the Google social network is profoundly uninteresting. The company’s introductory video is embedded below.