Google 2012: An internet odyssey

In 2011 Google had its most tumultuous year since its inception in 1997 and acted very much like a teenager would. It surprised us by changing up the leadership; it defied “corporate sclerosis” accusations by taking on Facebook in the social media race; and it made a bold move in the patent war with Apple by acquiring businesses like Motorola. Google’s leadership promised more wood behind fewer arrows, but with the industry talking up top-secret facility Google X and reports of driver-less cars it’s hard not to speculate about what Google will do in 2012, it’s even harder to get the speculation right. With that in mind, let’s take a look into the crystal ball:

The overarching word for Google in 2012 is “ecosystem” — we need to stop viewing Google’s products as being disparate and start viewing them in the context of the bigger picture: how they all fit together. If we go one step further, and take into account Eric Schmidt’s comments about Google+ being an “identity service” we can then begin to think about how Google’s products fit together with your online identity.

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The key drivers of the Google product ecosystem are now Google+ and Android: the former breaking records on the way to hitting 50-million users in 88 days, compared to 1 096 for Facebook and 1 046 days for MySpace; and the latter having 550k activations per day at its peak. With that said, the true test of a social network is whether people stay and the numbers from Experian Hitwise aren’t that rosy:

What this indicates is that Google+ achieved a “big bang” when it opened up registrations to the public, but it also received a fairly “big bust” in losing up to half those visits in the following 2 weeks. If we look at the “Returning Visitors” to Google+ it shows that it is retaining users:

And with the integration of their other products, Google+ is going to become an even bigger user puller in 2012.

With more than a billion broadband and half a billion fast wireless connections, the world is starting to become more connected than ever. Internet users are becoming immersed in, and interacting on, social media platforms at an exponential rate. This increased immersion leads to more sharing as users also produce and look for searchable content that defines who they are. Google is poised to present even better results if it can effectively tap into that data set.

Doug Edwards, Google employee #59 and major contributor to the Gmail project, described the company’s motivation for its social efforts in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal:

[I]t’s not because they enjoy warm and fuzzy social interaction and they think oh, this would be a really wonderful way to bring our friends together and build a social circle. They look at it and say, “the information created in social networks is extremely important and valuable. If we don’t have access to that information, Google will be less valuable as an information source.”

What stands in the way of progress, seems to be Google’s data uber alles approach to its products and attitude toward social media; and the fact that the Twitter data “Firehose” deal wasn’t renewed in the latter half of the year. Google had to can its Realtime Search service in the wake of that breakdown, and the Google+ data is, no doubt, aimed at replacing that.

We saw, with the acquisition of ratings site Zagat in the 3rd quarter of 2011, that Google is interested in having “good taste” and signals like tweets, likes and +1’s are important because we care what our friends think, and we think they care about what we think. What Google is going to do in 2012 with Plus is to use it as a repository for all of your Google user data, be it YouTube, Maps, Goggles or any other product. Google is going to make things a whole lot more “real” in 2012 by starting to connect payments, online buying and general commerce activity to your Google+ profile. If you allow it to, Google is going to use that data to recommend to you what to do next in your life based on what you’ve searched, your friend’s recommendations and where you are on the planet.

Speaking of being on the planet: “hyper local” became a buzzword in 2011 as GPS coordinates became the key to targeted advertising and location-based consumer deals. Google says that up to 40% of cellphone searches are about local information and finding a way to enhance user’s lives without being creepy is going to be one of the keys to success.

Google’s “Floor Plan” product, which is going to be an indoor Streetview for large places like airports, is a potential stroke of genius for businesses who want to display messages to potential clientele. Floor Plan will also tie in neatly with Google’s “Offers” product which aims to push coupons and special deals to users. This brings us onto Google’s technological “in”: the prolific adoption of Android and the development of NFC technology.

ABI Research has predicted that NFC-based Google Wallet will drive faster adoption in the European market by the end of 2012, with global adoption by 2014 and PayPal has openly stated that they think the high street will be totally mobile by 2016. In a bold marketing move, Google is set to promote NFC product “Wallet” at the London 2012 Olympics with frenemies Samsung and Visa looking to launch their own Olympics NFC handset at the same time, these efforts during a global event are going to go a long way towards increasing user figures. Vending machine company Cantaloupe Systems has already replaced 6 000 out of 80 000 vending machines across Chicago, San Francisco and New York so that users can not only swipe for goods, but also report their needs and machine malfunctions.

In 2012 Android will be the remote control for your life as it begins to constantly feed your user data back to Google. Android is going to be the proverbial horse before the NFC chariot amongst others including Google Plus. The mobile battle has intensified over the last quarter wherein Apple launched the “voice mobile assistant with a sense of humour” aka Siri. Seriously though, Siri can do all sorts of operations from starting your car, to telling you the weather and even providing you with factual information through its access to Wolfram Alpha. Google’s not taking this threat lying down and project codenamed “Majel” is set to launch in the next few weeks or early next year. The project gets its name from Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, the original voice of the computer on Star Trek and wife of the creator, Gene Roddenberry. It firmly underscores Google’s fascination with all things Star Trek and Google’s Matias Duarte has said in an interview with Slashgear:

“Our approach is more like Star Trek, right, starship Enterprise; every piece of computing surface, everything is voice-aware. It’s not that there’s a personality, it doesn’t have a name, it’s just ‘Computer’. And you can talk to it and you can touch it, you can interact with it at the same time as you talk with it. It’s just another way to interface with the computer.”

Much has also been made of Apple’s ability to link its products to each other wirelessly and we could see an all-out tech battle for the palm of the user. One of the hotspots in this battle is on the television front where Google’s set-top box technology hasn’t exactly lit the scene ablaze. Google’s launch early and iterate philosophy worked well in this instance where the first move in the market place indicated to them that a pricey set-top box and bad user experience isn’t going to cut the mustard.

The relaunch of Google TV in partnership with the world’s largest flat-screen television producer Samsung can be seen as Google’s second bite of the television cherry and will be a major move in the New Year. One hurdle in the entertainment industry has haunted Google since it acquired Youtube is partnering with content producers like Disney, NBC and Discovery. That seems to be a thing of the past as Google recently announced partnerships with Disney and Discovery, so look out for more of these happening in 2012. If you’re into Madonna, Jay-Z and Ashton Kutcher, then YouTube is becoming increasingly for you. Effective content partnering makes YouTube look a lot more grown-up, away from the millions of user-generated-content videos of people filming their cats. The recent YouTube redesign is meant to move it away from the eclectic and jumbled mess of UGC and place it firmly within the social sharing space as users can share their lists of content and personalise their own channels. What’s most important is that Google has preempted sharing of the content by allowing users to link their Google+ and Facebook accounts.

If there is one thing on the wish list for Google and its fanclub for 2012 it’s got to be a change in approach from reacting to its competitors, to getting back to its roots: proactively building products that help the user.

2012 won’t be as crazy as 2011 was for Google – most of the big moves have already been made; 2012 will be about consolidating on 2011. Remember these words in case I need to eat them halfway through the New Year, as with Google, you never know what’s going to happen next.

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