Google's 'Social Layer' Now on 2 Million Sites

Wednesday Dec 11th 2013 by Mike Elgan
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Google has been talking about a "social layer" for years. Now we know what it looks like.

 "At its simplest level, Google+ is a social layer across all of Google's services."

The words of Google's senior vice president for Social, Vic Gundotra, sound good. But what the heck do they mean? What does a "social layer" look and feel like?

We finally found out this week when Google announced a new way to combine advertising with social interaction. Called +Post ads, the service is essentially the integration of Google ads with Google+.

From an advertiser's perspective, a Google+ post can be instantly transformed into an ad that runs on Google's Display Network, which is currently deployed on about two million web sites. But from the public's perspective, an ad they see on some arbitrary site on the Internet is transformed into a Google+ post when you click it.

The post can include a picture, video or even a video hangout where prospective customers can watch a live interactive video chat session.

To me, the most fascinating behavior of +Post ads is that clicking on the ad doesn't take you to Google+. It just opens the Google+ post's conversation hovering in space over the page you were on. The +Post ad system uses a "lightbox" metaphor, where the page becomes a darkened background for the post, which zooms front and center. Users can see the whole post and read comments or add a comment of their own. When they close the post, they’re returned to the web page they started on.

The ads work on mobile devices, too.

The last words in Google's promotional video for the service is from an advertising partner who says +Post Ads "makes the entire web our social platform."

Yeah: Google could say the same thing.

Why +Post ads are unique and radical

Every marketing department is hearing that they need social networks and social engagement. So the solution to that is to build, say, a "Page" on Facebook or some other social network and treat it like a honeypot. The trick is to use engagement and other ads to lure potential customers away from whatever it is they're doing online and come to the social network in order to see and interact with the marketing content there.

First advertisers need an ad to get people to the social network page. Then they need an ad on the social network to get people to buy the product. Advertisers have to persuade twice.

Google's +Post ads reduce the number of persuasions by half. Instead of buying ads to lure people to the social posts, the social post itself is the ad. There's no need for brands to convince people to come to their social pages.

This idea of sprinkling the social network all over the Internet, in fact, is what Google has being doing for more than two years.

The old ‘social layer’ was limited to Google sites

Using Google Search these days involves using Google+, but without going to the Google+ site. A regular search is just like searching both Google and Google+ at the same time. Google's integration shows you both public and private results, as well as hashtag and profile results, depending on the nature of the search.

The recent integration of some Google+ features into YouTube is another scattering of social benefits to the larger Internet. If you post a simple comment on YouTube now, that comment becomes a public post on Google+, with the commented-upon video appearing with it in the post. (Google+ posting can be turn off with a click.) To make a public post on Google+ (or Facebook or any other social network) is to share your thoughts and invite comments about it. Now that benefit is available from YouTube without actually explicitly visiting Google+.

Gmail is similar. If you get email from someone who originated the message in Google+, you can respond and engage with comments and plus-ones from inside the message in Gmail. You're using Google+ without being at the site.

When you click on a business in Google Maps, and choose to "Write a review," you're really creating a Google+ post. It lives in both Google Local, which is a feature of Google+, and also in your profile (where all your reviews are collected).

When you see birthday reminders and other content in Google Now, you're actually using Google+ without going to the Google+ site.

When you review items in the Google Play Store, or engage with the recommendations of others, you're actually using Google+ without visiting the site.

When you comment on a blog that's using Google's own Blogger you're probably using Google+ and interacting with Google+ users without going to Google+. (And the people you interact with don't even know you're not on the Google+ site.)

And to use Google Glass is to constantly use Google+ without going there. Posts, birthdays and other content comes to you. When you choose to "share," from Google Glass, that goes out by default to Google+ as well. And the cloud storage site for pictures, which are automatically backed up, is Google+.

Google's aggressive integration of Google+ social features into so many of its products hasn't felt like the "social layer" Gundotra described. To fans, it has felt like the improvement of Google services with Google+ features and to critics, like the forced usage of Google+.

But the integration of Google+ and Google Display Network advertising really feels like a "social layer," and for two reasons.

First, the end result fully benefits every party involved -- the advertiser, the user and Google -- without compromise.

The +Post ad appears on a site as a 100% display ad, plus social features. And any display ad can be made into a +Post ad by the advertising company simply by posting it as the picture in a Google+ post and then filing into the +Post system.

When you click on any display ad, you expect something to happen that enables you to learn more and possibly interact in some way -- today you expect that a new tab will be opened, a new page loaded and your attention directed to that new page. But with a +Post ad, you stay on the same page with the social post on top. In that sense, the experience of engaging with the ad isn't diminished by social features, but improved. And the resulting post that rises over the page is a familiar social post displaying the comments of other real people and inviting your interaction.

And, of course, it's great for Google because every +Post ad is also an ad for both Google+ and Google Display Network.

That's what a "social layer" should do -- add social value without taking away anything.

And the second reason +Post ads feel like a "social layer" is that instead of social features on Google sites, these are social features on non-Google sites. Once +Post ads are made available to all advertisers, Google+ DNA could appear on 2 million web sites. It's going to feel extremely “social layerish” to find ads on random sites transform into Google+ posts on those sites.

Google's "social layer" has been around for more than two years, but only on fewer than a dozen or so Google sites. Soon, the “layer” will be on 2 million more.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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