Google confirmed that it's planning to roll out business profiles to its new Google+ social network. The news is bittersweet for small to midsize businesses (SMBs).
Bitter, because it takes time to create new profiles and learn a new ecosystem. Sweet, because what Google can potentially offer through pages for SMBs is significantly more compelling than Facebook's Pages. That's even despite Google+ just getting off the ground, while Facebook counts more than 750 million users.
Why? Since Google's inception in 1998, the company has concentrated on building all the services we already utilise for both personal and business use. All it needs to do now is tie them all together.
Google has asked users not to create business profiles, which are set for release later this year. If you want to be on the entity beta test, you can apply through this form.
Here's a look at what features Google+ for business could offer against Facebook Pages.
Search is a huge feature Google can and will leverage for Google+. Google disabled Realtime Search, which displayed tweets from Twitter and some limited content from Facebook on July 4 after its contract with Twitter expired.
Google had little interest in renewing the contract because it will probably integrate its own Google+ live feed into Search. That's the speculation at least. If Google does this, businesses have one more incentive to create a Google+ business page and begin live streaming for a chance to appear organically in real time on a user's search query. Facebook has no penetration into the search market, and if it's up to Google, it'll stay that way.
Productivity and communication
Google has the Apps for Business productivity suite, with tools including word processing and calendars, as well as its booming Apps Marketplace of third party apps. Facebook said it wants to kill email, but tell that to those who check their inbox for work every day, among them some of the 200 million Gmail users. There are at least 3 million businesses using Apps, with the biggest growth among small companies.
If Google provides companies with a full fledged web presence integrated with its social networking platform, there'd be little reason for Apps users to leave the world of Google products. One Google Apps user already stumbled across a sign that this integration is coming.
There's simply no equivalent potential in the Facebook realm, despite the introduction of Skype videoconferencing. Google already wraps video chatting into Apps, not to mention Hangouts in Google+.
Along with Google News, Facebook has become a major traffic driver to news websites. Facebook users can "Like" and comment on web pages, while the Google+1 system only arrived in March. But because it's embedded in Google+, it could quickly catch up if the new social network catches on. Should Twitter watch out?
Google already has the Google Checkout payment system and its Products search tapping into all sorts of online merchants. Google could theoretically tie both services into Google+ for businesses, enabling a company to link its payment service to a backend database of products within Google's ecosystem, rather than sending shoppers off to PayPal.
Facebook Pages by contrast enables SMBs to build pages with e-commerce using third party tools like TabJuice, which charges a monthly fee. Most other services for adding shopping to a Facebook Page cost many thousands of dollars.
Facebook is lightweight. It focuses on content sharing and communication among "friends," leaving product databases and payment methods to other services to handle. The closest thing you could say it has approaching a market is Facebook Marketplace, a would-be Cragistlist rival that really hasn't gained traction.
Google has Sites, which is limited, really more for team projects and minor intranets than for rich public business websites. Similarly, the layouts of Facebook Pages are constrained by that site's layout. To dress up your Facebook Page, you generally need to know Facebook's FBML coding language to do so, or seek a third party tool such as Shortstack to help.
Google would be smart to let businesses use tried and true programming languages, such as HTML and CSS, in addition to drag-and-drop design templates to doll up their Google+ presence. However, the search giant may very well limit the way a business appears on Google+ to the current Circles constraints of that service. But by harnessing its Blogger publishing platform, Google could enable users to say far more than the short text bursts in Facebook's stream of updates can.
Advertising and analytics
Businesses of any size around the world have relied on the pay-per-click, online advertising model of Google AdWords since 2000. And since 2003, AdSense has enabled people to embed contextual ads on their blogs and websites. Facebook Ads by contrast came in 2007, and it only reaches people logged on to Facebook.
In any case, such targeted advertising can look uncanny to users who see their Google search results or Facebook "Likes" reflected in ads. Yet AdWords remains a proven, profit-driving engine with rich metrics for advertisers. In addition, to show companies how their websites are performing, Google Analytics has a head start on deeper traffic and ad performance tools than what Facebook offers its Pages users, even though they are helpful and detailed.
Mapping and location-based tie-ins
Google can (and probably will) take the first strong step of integrating the new Google+ pages with Google Places, which appear in its Maps search results. This would allow a user to interact directly with a given company after it appeared on Google Maps. Currently, users can see static rankings of a given business from Google Places, but integrating Google+ profiles would allow users to ask questions or offer feedback in real time.
Say for example that a user is considering several local search results for sushi in his neighbourhood. He could theoretically not only compare the local results, but also ask questions about the menu or seating on each restaurant's Google+ business page before deciding where to eat.
Facebook has been trying to piece together similar functionalities but is facing some hurdles. First, it's having a hard time getting businesses to link their Pages and Places accounts, which is necessary if Facebook wants to expand the location-based experience beyond check-ins and reviews. Second, Facebook Places don't show up in a common location search using Google or another search engine.
So while Facebook might get business to link their Pages and Places accounts, they're still not going to be served up on search as regularly as Google+ business profiles.
The Google+ app for Android devices includes a mobile payment option through Near Field Communication (NFC) technology, which allows users to tap phones together or to a scanner to transmit data, such as credit card information. This technology is already at the heart of Google e-wallet, which the company introduced to a handful of cities in May. Currently, only Nexus S and 4G phones have access to NFC, but the technology is becoming increasingly common.
The successful integration of NFC into a mobile Google+ would have serious implications for many of the points raised above. For example, a user could not only check into a location using their Google+ profile, but could purchase through it as well, with the purchase tracked and shown to the business owner.
In theory, a Google+ user could be tracked from when she clicked on an ad, how much time she spent on the website, when she checked into the store and what she bought. Google already has proven models for most of these interactions. There's no reason not to tie them together. Again, there's no equivalent potential here for Facebook.
What else to watch for
For the past decade, Google has been working on building out the tools users use, rather than the connections among them. Google+ skeptics arguing that the social network has arrived too late are missing the full picture. The ultimate success of the modern social network will depend as much on its supportive services, in which Google has an advantage, as it will on its aggregate users.
So, while Facebook has expended considerable energy testing how users want to use the central functionalities of a social network, Google has been able to duplicate what's proven to work, test new features and fold that into a robust suite of functionalities.
Google may also have the appropriate perceptions on its side. For better or worse, Google has built its reputation on helping you find what you need: whether it's a location, an image or a product. Facebook has repeatedly stated that it's focused on helping you connect with your friends. So when Google+ business profiles allow you to integrate your business's presence into trusted tools used by everyday searchers, it's a proposition that neither Facebook nor business owners can afford to ignore.