Marissa Mayer Explains Google’s Social Strategy, Skeptical on Facebook

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Marissa Mayer, Google’s vice president of location and local services, answered questions on-stage today at the Social-Loco conference in San Francisco, where interviewer John Battelle asked her directly: So what is Google’s social strategy?

“Our social strategy is to help users connect with each other,” said Mayer (who’s pictured above at a different event).

Okay, that’s not exactly revelatory. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Mayer’s response was her statement that Google is still “just getting started,” even though it has already rolled out social products like Google +1, which allows users to recommend search results to their friends. So we can probably expect a number of new social products in the near future.

Battelle also wondered whether Google might start using social data from Facebook. Mayer responded that the results of that kind of partnership would be “very interesting.” However, she said that she feels “skepticism” about whether it will ever happen, because Google’s relationship with Facebook hit a bump last year. The problem was that Google allowed users to import their Gmail contact information into Facebook, but Facebook didn’t allow a similar swap — so Google decided to block contact sharing in the other direction too.

“We said, ‘We still would like to be open,’” Mayer said. “Let’s be open if there’s reciprocity. And there was no reciprocity.”

And Google doesn’t seem to be letting this go. The company tried to increase the pressure on Facebook earlier this year by preventing Nexus S owners from seeing Facebook Contacts in their Android address book.

Before taking on her new role last fall, Mayer led Google’s search efforts, so Battelle also asked her about the recent news that Google’s new chief executive Larry Page has renamed the search group the knowledge group. Mayer said the name change was another way to communicate the bigger vision that Google has for search. Many users still think of search as typing a query into a box and getting a list of links, but Mayer said Google wants to “reimagine search as something that’s much more expansive” while staying true to the core idea of “how can you find and explore information?”

Google finally unveiled its +1 social initiative today, which, similar to Facebook’s Like feature, lets users positively rate their favorite search results. Adding this kind of social feature to search is definitely a good move, but it could also hurt Google’s ad revenues: I predict that adding a +1 option to keyword ads will have a negative effect on clickthrough rates.

It is a cardinal rule of advertising that you present the user with one call to action. Clicking on a +1 next to an AdWords ad makes no sense at all – it is already hard enough to get people to click on an ad without adding confusing paraphernalia around the unit.

A store selling futons in San Francisco that pays for a targeted ad to people in the Bay Area searching for futons wants people to click on the ad, not the +1 next to the ad. The Google +1 AdWords implementation is an obstacle to conversions with very little upside. Google Instant is already impacting click through rates by automatically populating search results as users type, and Google +1 is going to make the problem worse.

Google is clearly attempting to mimic the popular Facebook ad feature where people “Like” a Facebook page. However, in Facebook, Liking a page is essentially opting in for newsfeed updates — the Facebook equivalent of a mailing list opt-in — which is why marketers are willing to pay for ads that incent users to Like their Facebook page. Google +1 offers no such benefit. In addition, while users are happy to “Like” Disneyworld, chances are they are not going to like “25 percent on futons today only!”

Granted, the +1 feature will help Google better rank search results by involving crowdsourced humans instead of algorithmic computing, which have been increasingly gamed by search marketers. However, it seriously begs the question, why isn’t Google simply ranking results based on what people are clicking on? If a user clicks on one link and doesn’t come back to click on other results, that indicates they have found what they are looking for.

Google +1 is a great step forward for Google as it is finally admitting that perhaps humans can be smarter than machines when it comes to detecting relevant content. But Google has already nailed how people like ads: By clicking on them.

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