Why Google’s screwup on Google+ brand pages is a big deal

There’s been a lot of sound and fury about the way Google has approached branded (i.e., non-personal) pages on its new Google+ social network. Much of it is a symptom of internecine warfare among the big tech blogs, some of whom waited to launch branded pages and got sandbagged by what they say is the web giant’s flip-flopping. But there is a serious issue underneath the griping, which is that Google can make or break a company’s presence online by virtue of its control over the web-search market — something Google+ is almost certain to become an integral part of.

When Google first launched its new social platform a couple of weeks ago, a number of media brands — including Sesame Street and the tech blog Mashable — rushed to set up pages on the network as a way of staking their claim, in the same way that many have set up what used to be called Facebook “fan” pages. But while Facebook allows corporate entities to have a presence on its network, Google said that it wasn’t ready for branded pages just yet. Instead, it asked most companies to wait, and said it would be rolling them out over the next couple of months after a trial with a few select entities such as Ford.

The Google+ land rush

Not surprisingly, perhaps, some companies didn’t feel like waiting, or taking down the pages they already had, so they just left them there. This caused a lot of confusion about what Google’s strategy was going to be exactly — would it grandfather the pages that already existed, or would it simply nuke them and force those companies to create new pages and build up their follower base from scratch again?

The confusion was compounded when Google started deleting branded or non-personal pages this week: some pages, including the page belonging to Mashable, remained in place while others vanished. Then the blog executed a clever trick by changing the name of its page to the name of founder and CEO Pete Cashmore — something that allowed it to retain all of its followers. This sent competitor TechCrunch into a frenzy of outrage, and caused Google-watcher Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land to write an open letter about the ill will caused by its Google+ screwup (TechCrunch’s fake personal page has already been deleted).

This may all seem a little like the cool kids fighting over who gets the parking spot closest to the door of the high school, but there is a serious issue at the center of the dispute, which TechCrunch writer MG Siegler hinted at in his post — and that is Google’s ability to create what amounts to a “suggested user list” for companies on its new social network. The SUL was something that Twitter created early on as a way of trying to help new users find accounts to follow, but it caused a lot of controversy because it led to some users getting millions of followers very quickly.

Google+ already a major player

A list of preferred accounts may not have seemed like a big deal when Twitter was just a tiny plaything for nerds, but it became a big benefit when the network grew to become a significant distribution platform for news and other content. The issue for brands is that Google+ could recreate that problem — or opportunity — in spades, because in just a few weeks it has already become so massive.

Depending on how you measure it, the speed at which Google+ has grown dwarfs just about any other social network, including Facebook and Twitter, and that’s because Google has been able to unleash a giant, built-in promotional engine via its various services such as Gmail, Picasa and so on. Integration with email was undoubtedly a huge launchpad, and the toolbar that appears at the top of Google pages when users are signed in, directing them to their Google+ feed, keeps the engagement levels high.

image via Leon Haland

With 20 million users or so already, Google has gone from zero to being a potential strong contender in the social networking game. But it’s not just the size of the network that’s important — it’s how the activity on those Google+ pages get interpreted by Google search, and how that affects page rank and all the other parts of the company’s black-box algorithms. It’s not clear how much the social signals coming from Google+ will be integrated, but there is no question that doing this was a big driver behind the company’s interest in doing social at all.

In other words, Google’s missteps or tweaking of Google+ features aren’t just of interest to a few tech-obsessed social-networking nerds. Could the way it has handled corporate pages even become an issue in the FTC inquiry into the company’s monopolistic and/or anti-competitive behavior? Possibly. But make no mistake — while some may see Google+ as just another copycat social network, it has the potential to affect the bread and butter of companies that do business online, and that is not a trivial issue.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Mark Strozier and Leon Haland