Google+ for Lawyers - A Good Fit?

by Aviva Cuyler
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[Originally published in ABA GP/Solo eReport - Surviving Social Media column.]

Google Plus arrived on the scene just under nine months ago and has steadily grown its user base to over 100 million strong (as of late January, 2012). Impressive numbers, even for the world’s dominant search platform, which has tremendous resources (money and traffic) available to help spur that growth.

And yet, the jury seems out on the question of whether Google finally “gets social” and has built a platform to compete with the likes of LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.

Those who love it really seem to love Google Plus, but almost daily we also hear from folks who have given “The Plus” a try and aren’t impressed. (Saw a funny viral image the other day, a distillation of social networking down to its most basic elements: “Twitter: I’m eating a donut. Foursquare: This is where I ate my donut. Facebook: I like this donut. LinkedIn: one of my skills is donut eating. Google Plus: I work at Google and like donuts.”)

My team and I have been studying Google Plus since launch, participating on the platform and learning as we go. Is G+ a good fit for lawyers interested in increasing their professional presence online? I think it is.

For one thing, I think you should never discount a company that earns $9B a quarter; they have the wiggle room to make mistakes as they perfect their new products. I also think, when it comes to online visibility, you need to “go to where your audience gathers.” True of the holy trio of older social networks and, at 100 million strong and growing, it is bound to be true of Google Plus – if not now, soon enough.

That said, here are two thoughts about Google Plus – one positive, one negative – that might help you as you evaluate the search giant’s social offering for yourself:

1. The Problem of Discovery

To my mind, Facebook and Twitter “do discovery” very well. By that, I mean: it is easy to encounter, discover, and experience new ideas, views, people, and content on those platforms because of the way actions disperse around the network.

In plain language: when you read a blog post or news article on Facebook and then click to “like” it, every person connected to you subsequently sees that you like that item – and, thanks to your action, they’ve discovered something new. This is the peer-reinforced distribution of information that has made the likes of Mark Zuckerberg famous.

Yes, on both Facebook and Google Plus, I can share something that impresses me (say a video, or article by one of my colleagues). My connections on either platform will see (will “discover”) what I have shared with them. The piece of content spreads around the web. But that’s where the comparison ends.

On Facebook, when I take other actions (than overt posting of links, and actual status updates), my network also learns of it. For example, when I ‘Like” an article shared by the Harvard Business Review, my connections are informed of that like and have a chance to discover it, too. I didn’t share a link, I interacted with a link shared by someone else – and yet; my network still knows about it.

For that matter, readers on (for example) my own website (JDSupra.com) can “like” what they read, and their actions travel back to Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook – their connections there learn of these interactions as they happen around the Web.

Google Plus has a very different way of registering interaction (“engagement” that buzzword of the moment).

When I comment on a post on Google Plus, or click +1 to show that I have liked a particular update, people connected to me do not hear about it. Instead, people connected to the person (or company) who originally shared what I liked get a second chance at seeing that update. In other words, people who have already seen the update, see it again. That’s it.

When I interact with someone else’s post on Google Plus, it rises to the top of the “stream” – becomes visible again to whomever is connected to the person who first shared that post.

This may sound like Greek to you (a dizzying form of Greek at that), but to my mind it is a fundamental difference in how we believe “visibility” and “discovery” work on social networks.

When I go to Facebook, my “stream” is comprised of news items, links, videos, and ideas that my friends and connections have discovered and liked. Even if they haven’t overtly shared new links with me, their interactions with other links create discovery for me. In other words, there are many paths on Facebook to things I have never seen before.

When I go to Google Plus, I see only the items my connections have shared. And in that “stream” of shared content, the items that take precedence are those that have received +1 likes, or received comments. It is a much more insular experience. If my good friend Joe is commenting in a lively debate, I’ll never know of it, unless I am connected to the original source of the debate in the first place. My friends’ actions don’t count on Google Plus, unless we are connected to the same things. I find this to be very limiting.

As I said, never underestimate a company that earns $9B a quarter, but I think Google Plus either does not “get” the viral nature of discovery in social environments (something Facebook perfected a long time ago), or they have something up their sleeves, and it has to do with their bread and butter: Search. Which leads to my second thought…

2. Google Plus and the Benefit of Search

On Facebook and Twitter the most important place is the stream, that page that lists all of the updates and “shares” and “likes” of your friends and connections. It is a place of immediacy and, as I said, earlier, of “discovery.”

In your stream, you can learn in the same breath: who won the Florida primary, what you best friend had for dinner, and what the NLRB advises about social media in the workplace. The stream is everything.

Google’s foray into Social must tie back to its core “discovery” product: Search. (And more importantly, their search result pages.) I think this is where activity on Google Plus is making a showing. (In fact, I know it: just recently the company announced an upgrade to search result pages that includes a measure of activity on its social network.)

To understand what I mean by this, you have to look at Google’s view on “information relevancy” over time. 

In the pre-social networking days, how could you tell if a website or page was more relevant than the thousands of other pages on the same topic?

Great question. Google’s smart answer: you could measure how many people linked to that page. The thinking: the more people link to a page, the more likely it is relevant. (Which would you like to see more: the page 1,000 link to, or the page 3 people link to?)

It is not a perfect measure, but Google’s search scheme was better than anything that came before it. It scaled well (as opposed to Yahoo!, which was a directory built by human editors one link at a time).

However, nowadays, people don’t just link to pages they like. They do other things, too. They actually “like” them (as on Facebook), they retweet them (as on Twitter), they “share” them (as on LinkedIn), and other such “social” actions.

The fact is: a link is no longer the only (or for that matter, the clearest) measure of whether or not something is relevant. Social action is another hugely important measure.

In order to remain relevant, Google has had no choice but to start tracking the social actions of people around the web. Competition being what it is, the company has not been privy to the social data within Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, and so it has been required to create its own social platform. (There are other reasons, too, of course.)

Now, when I search on Google, I see that the actions of my friends on Google Plus influence my search results. Recently, I was also very interested to see a search result on the first page of Google attributed to someone I am not connected to, but who has over 1,000 followers. In other words, Google said: “you might find this link relevant because here is someone followed by a lot of people who finds it interesting*.”

In short, today, we are seeing a new type of search result emerge that is based on a more contemporary understanding of how our online actions determine what makes something relevant.

And what on earth does this have to do with lawyers trying to do the right thing online?

Thought you’d never ask.

If you want to be visible online today, you have to participate in ways that the power players measure relevancy. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft (and its search engine Bing), LinkedIn, etc. all offer you opportunities. To be found. To be noticed. Found not only when people search on your name, but when they search for the type of thing that is at the heart of your professional expertise.

In the old days, it was enough to hope that people linked to your website, or to the client alerts and blog posts you wrote. Not anymore.

Now you (and your content) need to be social. Your relevancy is measured by how many people like what you have written, how many people share and recommend it.

Google remains the dominant search force of this time. If appearing in Google search results matters to your marketing objectives, you can do worse than start a Google Plus presence for yourself or your firm.

(And if you do, join us there - JD Supra has a page with a steadily growing readership: https://plus.google.com/b/104492581485125422433/104492581485125422433/posts)

 

Written by:

Aviva Cuyler
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