Around the start of any new year it’s customary for agencies to dig out their marketing tarot cards and come up with a few predictions on what they think will be big news over the next 12 months.
Well, if you’ll allow us to return to the topic one last time you’ll see there’s one trend that’s already showing signs of being the true dominant force in digital this year – a trend that’s far bigger than any single platform or flashy new website.
In 2012, the dominant theme will be conflict.
Three’s A Crowd…
It’s an ironic turn for an industry based around sharing and being “social”. Up until this point, Facebook, Twitter and, to a lesser extent, Google+ have all existed alongside each other in relative peace, occasionally poking their head up above the parapet to acknowledge the presence of another new arrival, but rarely anything more than that. However, recent posturing from all three major players would suggest that things are about to change.
The past five-to-ten years can be looked upon as a sort of ‘honeymoon period’, one in which social prospectors enjoyed unfettered growth without needing to really step on the toes of their competitors (the demise of MySpace notwithstanding). Now it seems as if the social landscape is approaching critical mass – a point at which the number of users willing to actively engage with social media reaches a plateau – and suddenly where there was once open-minded collectivism and mutual appreciation there is now increasing hostility, aggression and isolationism.
Take the recent (and unusually public) spat between Google and Twitter, for example. Google recently made headlines with the announcement of its ‘Search, Plus Your World’ initiative: a set of changes to its search algorithm that places added emphasis on Google+ pages within search results, effectively ‘favouritising’ them above content taken from the wider internet.
The revelation caused a tsunami of raised eyebrows among social media commentators and everyday internet users alike. Facebook engineers invented a tool to counteract some of the changes, but it was Twitter who came out as the most vocal critics, openly denouncing Search Plus in a letter to several major media outlets. This then prompted Google to issue a rather flippant rebuttal (via Google+, of course!), leaving professional relations between the two companies frosty at best.
In Google’s eyes, the shift to Search Plus is simply a move to keep them competitive, especially given Facebook’s increasingly cosy relationship with Microsoft’s Bing search engine. However, what Google appear to have failed to grasp is that this desire to compete is the very crux of their problem.
In the days before Google+, Google was largely an impartial observer in the great battle for social media supremacy – and rightly so. Now that they’ve waded into the ring brandishing their own platform, the delicate equilibrium has been unbalanced and defences are being raised on all fronts. Google might think this is game on, but in actual fact it will not end well for anyone, least of all them.
And here’s why: people place a huge amount of faith and trust in their search engine, relying on it to deliver the results they want without fuss. By taking the decision to actively reward their own pages above others, Google are undermining the very trust that is the lifeblood of their business – and once that trust is gone, it’s going to be very hard to win back.
Google hope that the move to Search Plus will force more brands to expand their presence on Google+, but it’s a dangerous gamble to make. While they dig their heels in and prepare for a long fight, there is absolutely no reason why a rival such as Bing couldn’t swoop in and take over the role of impartial search provider.
And it’s not like Google have much choice; after the unmitigated failure of both Buzz and Wave, there is a huge amount of professional credibility (not to mention money) riding on the success of Google+, and there is no way they are about to accept defeat lying down.
Ready To Rumble
So, it’s Google and Google+ in one corner, Facebook and Bing in the other, with Twitter flitting around the edges trying avoid catching a stray when the blows really start raining down. But where does that leave everyone else?
In the short term it looks like we’re all going to have to pay a bit of extra attention to Google+, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see the uptake of new pages rise dramatically among brands and users alike. The real question is just how long that uneasy state of affairs can last.
Brands can easily replicate action across two platforms simultaneously, but asking users to maintain an active presence across both Facebook and Google+ seems like a step too far, and there will likely be only one clear winner when the dust settles.
Who that winner is, we shall have to wait and see.
Ding ding, round one…