Sparks seems out of place, but it’s the money-making part of Google+

February 13, 2015 Lou Franco

All of the overviews I’ve read of Google+ so far concentrate on the social aspects, Circles, Huddle (Group Chat), Hangout (Group Video), and rightly so, as those are the features that Google is hoping will make you switch to them. Sparks, the feature where you list a topic of interest and Google feeds you information on it, gets described like this (from GigaOm):

Circles, Hangout and Huddle are about personal sharing and personal communications. Sparks on the other hand is devoid of that connection and stands out as a sore thumb.

Most other news outlets just parrot the official line on Sparks as a content discovery engine:

Sparks delivers a feed of highly contagious content from across the Internet. On any topic you want, in over 40 languages. Simply add your interests, and you’ll always have something to watch, read and share—with just the right circle of friends.

Which is the right way to describe it to people that will be using Google+. But, what about those that are paying for Google+?

Who pays to use Google+

This classic metafilter comment is a good way to think of almost every Google product:

If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold.

This gets to the heart of why Facebook is such a threat to Google. It’s not because Facebook helps me keep in touch with my family better than GMail. It’s because I will look at ads while I’m doing it.

Facebook is threatening Google’s core business by spreading their ads to other sites. Facebook’s advantage is, for placement ads, targeting the viewer through demographics works better than targeting the content, and is more in line with how advertisers think, especially for brand advertising. Axe wants ads shown to 17 year old boys, not on deodorant blogs.

How to make the product (you) more valuable

As the product, I am more valuable the more the seller knows about me. Specifically, if it knows things I might buy. Facebook knows a ton about me, but not all of it is interesting to advertisers. The best information it has is my sex, age, and location. But, once I bought some Facebook ads, I realized that you could target on Likes and Interests, too – the problem is, Facebook users don’t use this feature in the way advertisers would like them to, nor are they incented to.

The first problem is that it’s not clear that when you Like a page, group, etc. or show an Interest in something, that you are opening up your feed to possibly get messages from the owner of that page. This means that you might classify the updates as spam or you just might not interact with it, which would make it propagate to other feeds or be registered as a more intense interest by Facebook.

The other problem (for advertisers) is that Facebook users tend to like very specific things, like a particular band or author, or just weird groups that are meant to look funny in the feed – e.g. “Lou likes Don’t you hate it when milk comes out of your nose.”  These are either useless or extremely hard to aggregate when you are trying to target an ad.

As an example, earlier this year, we tried to see if we could do a recruiting ad – the local targeting is great, but it was extremely hard to target within that. If you go into Facebook’s advertising, try putting things like “Programming” or other general interest topics – you will see very low numbers of users.

Sparks makes “Likes” and “Interests” easier to target

Sparks directly addresses some of these issues. For one, you are specifically signing up to receive content from your “likes” – that’s the whole point. It’s natural that some sponsored content is going to find its way there eventually. Even if not directly, through whatever the equivalent to SEO for targeting Google+ feeds turns out to be called – (I’ll called it FEO – Feed Engine Optimization). In any case, we’ll certainly get placement ads on the page, which can be nicely targeted to the interest. And you can be sure that you’ll see targeted ads on the content network as well.

Secondly, since the point is to get content, you will probably be expressing interest in things you have a genuine interest in, not just adornments for your profile page. I “like” the Yankees, U2, The Office, etc., but I don’t really want to read about them every day – they are just on my profile page to let my friends know more about me.

Finally, Google is awesome at aggregating specific terms into general ones.  Even if it turns out that everyone picks different (unaggregatable) Sparks, I bet Google will be able to aggregate them for advertisers.  If you use AdWords, you are already familiar with this capability.

Google’s Network Effect could make it even better

Last year, when the Google’s Circles concept and Social focus were leaked, I wrote about the Network Effect between Google services and how spreading “Likes” to those services will help drive usage.

Even if none of my friends join, Sparks still makes Google+ useful if it’s integrated with the rest of the services I use already (for example, if it makes search results better). It looks like that’s exactly where Google is headed with this, since there are talking about the features of Google+ being integrated into all Google applications. Vic Gundotra (Google Sr. VP of Social) in Wired:

“Google, thank god, has a few assets. We have hundreds of millions people who love us — they love YouTube, they love Gmail, they love search. What if we were to go across each of those categories and rethink them? The things we have to do are obvious, but Google hasn’t done them. And so Bradley and I have the odd chance to help lead the company to go fix these sins.”

What he didn’t say, but will be even more valuable to Google, is when they get this into AdWords, the Content Network, and the rest of the money making parts of Google.

About the Author

Lou Franco

Lou is the former Vice President of Product Development at Atalasoft.

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