In September 2012, I blogged about how some still view social media as a fad and predicted that there would be a fundamental change in 2013. My main assertion was that social media had matured to the point the Web did in 2000—being cool is no longer enough; it’s time to make money.
2013 saw stories (and controversies) about Twitter advertising, Facebook wanting to run auto-playing videos in your timeline and Twitter’s IPO. But I think the key thing that changed was Google’s über-integration of Google+ into everything, but mainly YouTube. And, their decision to kill Google Reader. These two decisions show Google is on the road from simply being cool to figuring out how to make money.
One social media site to rule them all
YouTube remained its own brand long after Google acquired it. And while integration of its login accounts into the Googleverse caused some confusion (e.g., I had Google accounts for two email addresses—one for private, personal stuff; one for my more public persona—and somehow lost the use of a custom URL for one of them), YouTube by-and-large remained its own universe.
At the same time, Google+ endured plenty of criticism when it launched, forcing anyone with a Google service—GMail, Google Docs Drive, Google Alerts—to have a Google+ account. This artificially inflated their number of users.
But their decision to scrap YouTube comments in favour of a Google+ system will be seen—for good or ill—as a tipping point. Almost as if this decision was made to force users to become active on Google+. (I know they say it is to improve comments on YouTube, but come on. The YouTube trolls are part of the charm!)
(Addendum: It also seems that Blogger’s comments have also been replaced by Google+. I am not sure when this happened since it’s been a while since I’ve been on a Blogspot-hosted blog, but it’s the same move as YouTube—if you want to participate, you must be on Google+.)
Without a doubt, Google+ is the basket with a lot of eggs in it. One only need look at the death of Google Reader. Like a lot of you, I used Google Reader and loved it. So why did it die? According to Buzzfeed, Google+ was the company’s top priority and none of its senior people wanted to run a second-tier product for fear of not basking in the glory of Google+.
For a company as large as Google, this focus on one product can only mean it is seen as its main money maker.
Get ready for Google+ ads
The reason for this change is not to stick a finger in Facebook’s eye. It’s about gaining an even deeper knowledge about us in order to serve ads better suited to our tastes. As a business, Google needs to make profits and better ads means more revenue. I do not begrudge them that. However, just as we have Facebook ads in our timeline, it is only a matter of time before we have ads and promoted posts on Google+ (in addition to the ads on the search results page we have grown used to). Google+ has already been softening us up with the “What’s Hot and Recommended” posts.
What’s more, could this also be a harbinger of the death of YouTube (or Blogger) as its own entity? YouTube has undergone some substantial changes with the launch of its “One Channel” in early 2013. One wonders if this new layout is the first of a few gradual steps to shut down the YouTube brand and re-launch Google Videos.
And think about it from the advertiser’s perspective. It would be much simpler to run a campaign across all Google platforms rather than having to manage AdWords in one interface and YouTube advertisements in another.
What about Facebook?
It’s ironic that as Google—who got started in search—is making a full court press into social media, Facebook launched Open Graph, its advanced search tool. By all accounts it was a flop, but Zuckerberg is nothing if not iterative. I have no doubt Open Graph is being tweaked behind the scenes and, when ready, rolled out again.
On the other hand, reports have come out that the organic reach of Facebook pages is being intentionally diminished in favour of promoted posts. Again, this makes sense in that Pages were set up so that businesses could have a precense on Facebook and business have traditionally paid for advertising. But this is a bit of a betrayal. Brand Pages could purchase advertisements, but a number of brands grew their reach through posting cool content and interacting with fans. You know, being social. Now it seems all of that was wasted effort.
What will happen to social media in 2014?
Unfortunately, we’re seeing the migration from meritocracy to those with the most bucks getting the most space. Now, this is capitalism and it has always been this way. (I doubt we will see too many mom-and-pop stores advertising during the Superbowl.) But it also means the end of “cool” online. The social media space has reached the point where it needs to make a profit to be self-sustaining. All those servers with all those cat videos won’t pay for themselves.
By the end of 2014, you won’t be able to watch anything on YouTube without sitting through an ad. (I know, it already seems that way.) Like we see on Tumblr, paid posts will show up in your Google+ feed. And I have to believe that Facebook won’t just serve ads in the right side of the page and promoted posts in your timeline, but will offer a service for ads to show up as notifications (the numbers coming out of the globe in the top right). Think about it: the circle appears with a “1” in it, but it’s telling you “Because you liked this page, you should like that page” or “Because you liked this post, Brand X is offering a 20% discount if you act in the next 10 minutes.”
To put this all another way, social media is going to look a lot like TV by the end of this year. Except these TV stations will know virtually everything about you.