Google, Social Networks, And The Future Of Search

Would advertisers pay more to reach you rather than your mother? How much are your clicks worth?

These are the questions posed by Heather Green in a recent BusinessWeek article: Making Social Networks Profitable. Green lays out intriguing possible scenarios in which Google could redefine advertising through social networks like Facebook and MySpace.

It represents either trivial speculation or one of the more profound changes in modern advertising and PR.

I've developed one theory about Google's possible plans. It seems to make sense given Google's track record and recent trends. But really, I'd love to hear from you - whether you think this theory is guaranteed to come to fruition, completely bunk, or just so-so.

But first, let's examine influence ranking and then go through how Google could use this to revolutionize search and social networks.

The Problem of Influence

Google has a patent pending on technology for ranking the most influential people on social networking sites. Take a moment for the implication of this to sink in.

While intriguing, this prospect and Green's article start with some questionable assumptions. For instance, what is influence?

Two ideas are particularly tenuous. "Well-connected chums make you particularly influential. The tracking system also would follow how frequently people post things on each other's sites." However, we all know from personal experience that just because a person is vocal and has a lot of friends on MySpace does not mean they are influential. Quantity of friends and frequency of interactions are not specifically markers of influence.

Her third and final idea of influence - that of getting your friends to click on articles or videos you send - may be worthwhile. Unlike quantity or frequency of social networking activity, your friends' clicks do indicate their trust. However, as an advertiser, I would be less interested in clicks and more in the resulting purchases. It's an incomplete metric at least.

(Just before I was about to hit "publish" on this piece, I saw Joe Marchese's excellent piece critiquing Green's take on influence and the use of measuring it at all: Google To Decode Social Networks. It's a must-read if you're interested in influence ranking - especially the last paragraph.)

What's The Use?

Green hypothesizes that Google could identify the most influential members of groups and both sharpen and expand advertiser's targeting. She believes they will better target with the same old display ads they've been using.

I respectfully disagree.

The hypothesis of sharpened and expanded targeting is hardly a departure from Google's current practice. Sure, social networkers tolerate banner ads now, but this makes the ads more invasive and especially abuses the most influential ("[Nike] could work with Google to plop an interactive free-throw game on the profile pages of the community influencers").

This course of action would set off twin firestorms from privacy advocates and those concerned about social networking monetization (they aren't getting paid by Nike, after all). Plus, it's not really an advancement. Google tends to make bold leaps, not timid advances into an area they already dominate.

Maybe there are other ways Google can use social network information.

Google Today

So how could Google use a patent that ranks influential people (assuming they can) on social networking sites?

I started sketching out at a very basic level what Google does. This is what I came up with. Primarily, Google organizes and prioritizes information on websites and display ads.

  • Google parses information about websites:

User provides search terms + Google provides search algorithm = SERP

  • Google parses information about search terms:

User provides search terms + Google provides ad serving mechanism = AdWords

Google Tomorrow

This is how the system currently works. But if the next step moves forward as Green describes, the user will tacitly provide social networking profile information rather than a search term. So the equation becomes:

User provides social networking profile info + ? = ?

What would Google provide and what do they hope to achieve?

Well, it seems likely that they will provide some tool to sort data - in this case to determine an influence ranking. If Green is correct about their patent filing, the equation becomes:

User provides social networking profile info + Google provides influence ranking/search algorithm = ?

And what could they serve up? I think it's going to be experiences.

User provides social networking profile info + Google provides influence ranking/search algorithm = Real-life experiences

Experiences?

Right now, Google dominates the web. They have the most robust search and ad serving capabilities. Since 99% of their revenue is derived from advertising, where can they go but into the real world? How else can they provide something worthwhile for their advertising partners?

Imagine this:

I'm walking in my neighborhood, chatting on my new Gphone. At the same time, Mastercard is sponsoring a concert featuring my favorite band just a few blocks over. All of a sudden, I get an ad on my phone with information about the concert and a digital coupon if I can bring along two more friends. I use Google to locate a couple of my friends in the area and we head to the show.

In this scenario:

  • I win: I get to see my favorite band and get a cheaper ticket to the show.
  • Mastercard wins: By delivering uber-targeted messages, they get more brand exposure (along with the residual effect of pleasing the influentials). Plus, they don't get charged for ad impressions that don't result in a ticket purchase.
  • Google wins: They rake in the money for all of the ads served.

This advertising scenario takes the best of what Google does (parse and deliver information) with what advertisers want (targeted messages and accountability) resulting in a very pleased customer.

Influentials could be rewarded by the discounted tickets I described or a number of other ways. Perhaps initial messages go out to them a week ahead of time to build buzz. Maybe their ad reception radius is larger.

Think of all the information contained in a social networking profile. You've got location (ad: the store you just passed is having a sale!), alma mater (ad: another Stanford alum is sitting at the bar!), favorite books (ad: Borders is having a Nabokov sale!), and much, much more.

Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems possible, if not likely, that Google would take a giant leap to extend their reach. What do you think? Am I totally off-base? Feel free to leave your comments below.

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(Photo courtesy of ricki888c via Flickr)