Google is waging a war against Facebook and it’s losing. Ironically, it’s not even using its most important secret weapon in this crucial fight so far.
Google+, Google’s third attempt at building a social network, is now almost 9 months old. It’s safe to say that it’s not a runaway success, despite all the money and talent invested in this project. Although Google+ has 100 million users, that number is likely driven by default registrations from new Android users. Anybody who still uses Google+ can probably confirm that almost all people left on it are web professionals and social media consultants. The statistics tell the same story.
“Normals” don’t seem to see a reason to switch from Facebook, and it’s not hard to see why. Google+ is just trying too hard to be Facebook, and its few innovations (such as Circles) are all fairly incremental, easily copied by Facebook.
Gaining a strong position in social media is crucial for Google. Plain old search marketing has likely reached a plateau and users’ time and attention is captured more and more by social media. And the ad dollars are starting to follow.
Google is now trying to leverage its dominance in search to entice people to use Google+, but so far all these attempts seem to be failing. And that’s not a surprise: Google won the search war by providing the objectively best search results, based on what all Internet users think the most relevant content is. And now we’re suddenly supposed to care what our (still somewhat random) Google+ contacts think about a certain topic?
Given all these difficulties, it’s very surprising that Google seems to be ignoring its most promising social opportunity: YouTube.
Here are a few facts about YouTube:

  • It reaches almost as many U.S. visitors as Facebook (152 million for Facebook vs. 147 million for YouTube)
  • It’s ubiquitous: YouTube is strong on the web, on mobile, on tablets, on game consoles and now even on smart TVs. Facebook is nowhere near this device penetration.
  • According to comScore, users spend a similar amount of time per month on YouTube and Facebook. If you count the YouTube-hosted VEVO music video site, YouTube wins hands down.
  • While Facebook is still struggling with the monetization of its huge user base (relatively speaking) and keeps experimenting with complicated ad schemes, YouTube offers a proven and effective lineup of attractive ad formats that appeal to all sizes of advertisers, from the biggest brands to niche marketers. In case you were wondering: yes, video ads work and have more impact than Facebook’s slightly annoying sidebar ads.

YouTube is already a social network, although not a very well designed one. You can subscribe to channels, message people, “Like” videos and, of course, comment. In other words, YouTube has many of the social mechanisms that Facebook offers, but they’re nowhere nearly as widely used. Most people probably don’t perceive YouTube as a social site because real social activity happens only in small sub communities.
Why is that? Even though YouTube has improved social features in its recent total site redesign, there are still some glaring holes in its social ecosystem: profile (channel) pages still seem like an afterthought and don’t offer enough ways to differentiate between businesses and individuals. YouTube doesn’t have a concept of real user identity, which is why so many comment threads are full of spam and profanity. Strangely enough, YouTube recently removed crucial social features, such as the ability to display the list of people who subscribe to a channel.
More surprisingly, YouTube’s ubiquitous embedded player doesn’t emphasize social engagement at all. There are millions and millions of YouTube videos embedded right on Facebook walls and Twitter streams and none of them encourages viewers to do anything on YouTube itself. Need proof? Play a YouTube that’s embedded on any website. Do you see a “Like” button on the video? No? That’s because it will show up only at the very end when you have already moved on. What’s there instead? A constantly visible button that lets you change the video resolution (come on, who ever does that?).
YouTube’s strategy seems to be all about keeping people watching more and more videos. Of course that’s perfectly fine because that’s what YouTube’s business model is all about. Unfortunately, this focus on content instead of social interaction could cost Google its only real chance at playing catch-up in social media.
Look, it’s simple: once a particular company has really won a category on the web, it’s almost impossible to beat them. Was Microsoft successful at becoming a search engine? How about Alta Vista (remember them?) trying to be a Yahoo-style portal? Or Amazon going into auctions? Anybody remember iTunes Ping?
Beating Facebook at its own game is hopeless, even for a giant full of hyper-smart people like Google. The only way is to win is by innovating in a new domain and providing something fresh that users can’t easily do on the dominant sites. That gives them a reason to spend time elsewhere.
Witness Pinterest’s success. Why is this site growing like crazy? Why is it on its way to rival Facebook in terms of usage time in some demographic segments? Because Pinterest actually does something really new. It focuses fully on visual content, on pictures. It’s highly social too and provides all the social mechanisms that made Facebook so successful: one-click sharing, easy social gestures such as “Likes” and “Repins”, rich profile pages, and a viral invite system. All of this is bundled in a user interface that looks fresh, light and beautiful. YouTube lacks most of these things.
Google sits on a gold mine of video content and related user data. Online video is growing like crazy. You don’t have to be a visionary to see that video is going to overtake text-oriented web content fairly soon in terms of usage time. And Google with YouTube basically owns this space. None of the other successful video sites (Netflix, Hulu etc.) are even remotely social.
YouTube is in a unique position to be the next big social site, concentrating on video content and the social interaction around it. But instead, Google is trying to push its Facebook copycat, Google+. Time to revisit this strategy. The search giant should put YouTube into the position it deserves at the heart of Google’s social strategy.