Google+, the search engine’s recent entry in the social networking sphere, is set to make a big impact on the legal-web ecosystem. You would be wise to jump ahead of the curve and begin testing now, rather than wait to see how things pan out.
Why? Because this time it’s different. This isn’t Google Buzz, Google Wave or Google’s other social network, Orkut, which remains popular in Brazil. And it’s not just Google trying to compete with Facebook or Twitter, as some have speculated. This is an all-out offensive push by Google to reinvent itself, and it will work because billions of dollars in Google advertising revenue are at stake.
I know there are naysayers out there: “It’s too early to tell,” or “These are still early days,” they say. But let me say it clearly: They are wrong. I expect Google+ to quickly move beyond just social network status, and to socially entangle almost every Google web service under a single unifying umbrella. It will be big, and it will affect how every business operates online—lawyers and law firms included.
Why Lawyers Should Care—and Start Experimenting Early
Here are a few factors worth considering that might push you toward becoming an early adopter.
- Google search affects your business. First of all, recognize that Google search remains critical to sending traffic to your law firm website. Go ahead and check your metrics if you like, but there are few exceptions. Sharing content on Google+, along with the rising adoption of +1 buttons on blogs and websites, will allow lawyers to leverage their online networks for better rankings and traffic exposure—the lifeblood of a well marketed law firm online.
- G+ Business Profiles will create a unifying hub. Expect G+ business profiles (set to launch later this year) to deliver a better context for business searching. Within two years, G+ will be showcasing most of the commercial services Google now offers. Consider how Google altered local search in 2011 with Places—and that happened without a legitimate mobile check-in function. If Google embeds Places listings in its upcoming G+ business profiles (not to mention the larger G+ social network), law firm networks (or “circles”) will add an entirely new set of metrics for Google to consider—metrics by which Google can gauge online trust and, more notably, rank websites in its search results.
- G+ is more “business” than Facebook, more “personal” than LinkedIn and more “substance” than Twitter. Arriving late to the social engagement party may put Google+ behind with respect to the adoption curve, but there are definite benefits to watching the successes and failures of the competition. Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter each have gaps in their coverage or functionality making their alignment with business interests difficult.
- Remember the Adwords advantage. Not only does Adwords give Google a proven monetization strategy, it’s an advertising method based on sending visitors to business websites. Whether the goal is to increase product sales or to increase exposure for professional services, most marketers will tell the same story—direct website traffic is still the key to conversions. Google isn’t going to abandon that philosophy for Google+, and that’s good for business.
- Google will extend “Circles” to target legal audiences. This is one area where I think Google+ could really shine. We often know far more about our existing relationships than we ever document. Midsize and larger firms use customer relationship management (CRM) software to detail client interests, but how do we do this at a personal level? Audience segmentation may require extra work, but the value of sharing the right information with the right groups is invaluable. Google Circles simplifies this process better than any of its predecessors, and like CRM software it shares the workload throughout the organization.
- You can gain the first-mover advantage. If your firm is struggling to gain “likes” on Facebook, or drowning among the Twitter sound bites, you’re not alone. As the masses join the latest trendy web service, participants often struggle to stand out. First movers not only get the jump on the competition, but they have more room to experiment, and just as important, to make mistakes.
Why Google+ Is the “Next Big Thing” (And Where to Start)
Google has wanted to socialize its services for some time now. Early in July, it lost access to its one social toehold: Twitter’s real-time feed, along with the embedded links and topic trends. Competitor Facebook has similar contextual data, but Facebook won’t be providing that to Google anytime soon. Google, on the other hand, maintains one of the few proven tools for generating business online: search. But it needed to make a play for social relevance. Google+ is that play, and I believe it will have a direct impact on publicizing and marketing lawyers’ services online.
So start your experimentation early. Learn what Google+ is and how it works—first as an individual, and later as a business owner or marketer. Google+ is still in limited field trial, but you can set up your Google profile and if someone sends you a Google+ invite, accept it.
The early days of any web tool are best used to establish relationships and share interests, and are non-commercial in nature. During that period, expect Google to integrate business applications slowly. Watch for what vehicles Google provides to distribute content. Law firm business profiles are a given, but what about practice groups? How about online communities for practice commentary? Perhaps Google’s web video “hangouts” could serve as an interactive webinar platform? Only the future will answer these questions, but this much we know: You must participate to find out.
We all keep hearing about the “Next Big Thing” online. This is it, folks.
Steve Matthews, founder and principal of Stem Legal Web, helps lawyers and law firms gain greater web visibility and effectiveness. A thought leader and a trend watcher within the legal profession, he blogs enthusiastically at both Law Firm Web Strategy and slaw. Steve is a member of the Attorney at Work Advisory Group.