It’s business time for Google Plus: A year and a few days after Google’s nascent social network launched the ability for brands and businesses to add their own pages on the website, Google on Monday announced that it was merging features of Google Plus with Google Shopping, the search giant’s online product aggregator.
Now users will be able to rate and review products from major retail outlets listed on Google Shopping using their Google Plus accounts, with the option to post the reviews on their Google Plus profiles. Users can also see reviews from their contacts on Google Plus.
Google also last week quietly expanded support for its Google Plus Pages API (application programming interface) to Expion, a self-described “social media software management company” based out of Raleigh, North Carolina.
In essence, this allows Expion — which already provides software tools allowing big brands to manage their Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts — to now provide a way for its customers to also manage their Google Plus accounts through custom dashboards, which provide more filters, tools and settings than the default account pages found on Google Plus and other social networks.
More specifically, Expion will be developing a way for brands to manage Google Plus “Circles,” the customized groupings of contacts that a user can maintain, keep private or publicize on the website.
“The unique feature of Google+ is Circles which gives brands the ability to target groups of individuals,” said Peter Heffring, CEO of Expion, in an email to TPM. “Expion is leveraging that unique feature by building custom integrations around Circles that will not be available to in our other offerings.”
As Expion noted in its little-noticed news release on Wednesday, the day after the U.S. general election, it is now “one of a select number of companies to provide third party management tools” for Google Plus.
In fact, since Google launched Google Plus in June 2011, one of the more intriguing differences the company has maintained from Facebook and Twitter is in tightly restricting the Google Plus API, allowing third-party developers access to comparatively less user content and features than competing social networks.
In fact, Google has purposely excluded most third-party services and social dashboards from integrating with Google Plus, as Google vice president of product Bradley Horowitz recently revealed to Dutch tech blogger and “Google ambassador” Arvid Bux.
As Bux summarized Horowitz’s explanation for why Google Plus’s API remained more closed than competitors: “To ensure growth is organic, the API remained close. Users had to use Google+ instead of a 3rd party client.”
But by the same token, brands and businesses may be more reluctant to sign-up if they know they can’t control the experience as tightly as they can on other social networks. Clearly, brands and businesses often have different and more rigid needs when it comes to social networking than individual private users.
So giving brands and businesses more tools to use Google Plus is some incentive for them to engage more on the service and potentially attract even more users to the service, but as for why a brand would want to spend time on Google Plus in the first place, Expion has an answer that lines-up neatly with where Google retains a competitive advantage over Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and the the numerous other social services available now: Google Search.
More pointedly — since Google radically overhauled its search engine in January 2012 to begin displaying results from Google Plus much more prominently than any other social network, and since it converted its local listings, Google Places, into Google Plus pages in May, Google Plus has become the de-facto default way to find a brand or business on Google Search.
“Google is the leader in search, data shows that posts and content on Google+ Pages is maximized for consumers to find when looking online,” Heffring noted. “A multi-location company should take Google+ seriously as an optimization for search regarding maps, reviews and mobile search enhancements….There isn’t a one size fits all answer for WHY a company should be on Google+ but SEO [search engine optimization] is the biggest reason.”
And though Google still trails Facebook considerably when it comes to total users (400,000 users had “upgraded” to Google Plus as of September 2012, compared to Facebook’s 1.01 billion users as of a month later), Heffring thinks that there are some trends working in Google’s favor that could see Google Plus rival Facebook.
“If Facebook becomes less user friendly and too advertising rich, it could drive many users to Google+,” Heffring told TPM. “Google appears determined to embed Google+ throughout all aspects of the user experience and interaction with Google from Gmail, YouTube, Picasa, Search, and Local Places. Once these are fully integrated, the chances of Google+ becoming more popular will increase tremendously.”
Indeed, another primary point of differentiation between Google Plus and its more well-known social competitors, one which Horowitz was quick to highlight to Bux: Google Plus still surfaces no display advertising. That’s remarkable not only because Google itself makes most of its money off of its ad network (AdWords), but because Facebook and Twitter are increasingly experimenting with new advertising formats as a way to continue growing their revenue streams.
However, as Horowitz noted and Bux reported: “Google uses the data collected via Google+ to target ads better on the different Google services.”
On mobile, too, Google is keeping pace of its competitors in terms of mobile usage, with upwards of 100,000 monthly Google Plus mobile users in September.
Still, if Google Plus has spent most of the first year and a half of its existence under the radar, known to most as the “other” social network, the coming year should prove to be an especially exciting one for the company and for users, as Horowitz proclaimed to Bux: “2013 will be the year of Google+!”
That’s because Google is poised to launch a host of new services for Google Plus, including a product that combines Google Talk (better known as “Gchat”) from Gmail more closely with Google’s Hangouts On Air video-chat Feature and with Google+ Messenger and Google Voice, the company’s voice-over-internet protocol app. Google Plus is also expected to gain more features inspired by or similar to Google News, though exactly which remain to be seen, according to Bux.