Facebook, Google, and the mirage of "engagement"
I've been struck by a host of stories lately with headlines trumpeting the fact that people spend more time online with Facebook sites than at Google. Google, of course, has played into this narrative by positioning themselves as a social alternative to Facebook.
What's sad to me is that Google used to pride itself on the speed with which it helped you find the information you want, and then get out of the way. "Time on site" is a terrible metric for an information utility!
When I'm looking for the answer to a question, when I'm looking for directions or my next appointment, or directions to my next appointment, when I'm getting routed to interesting articles that I want to read, Google provides more utility the less time I spend on site.
There's a real danger here that Google will fall into the Yahoo! trap, forgetting who they are by pursuing the competition. Yahoo! was a terrific content destination, and lost its way trying to be a search engine. Might Google be doing the same in trying to become a social destination?
With a little time to reflect on the Google I/O announcements, I'm disappointed by how many of them were social time wasters rather than real improvements in utility.
I do think social should be an important part of Google's strategy, and overall, I'm impressed by the way they are integrating social across all of their products, but my advice for competing with Facebook is to constantly focus on how to make social data more useful - which may mean less time on site - rather than more "engaging."
Of course, both Google and Facebook time on site is dwarfed by the "time on site" of television, that vast wasteland of passive consumption. That ought to tell us something about the folly of time on site as a metric.
I want services that help me get more benefit from less time online, not services that take me further and further from time in the real world.
This may be why of all the announcements at Google I/O, I'm most excited about Project Glass. While the demo for Glass emphasizes how it can be a powerful vector for social sharing of experiences (that skydive was awesome!), Glass will avoid marginalization (I heard several people refer to it as "the Segway of 2012") only by focusing relentlessly on becoming useful rather than becoming engaging. It will need to slip into the background rather than being in the foreground, a tool for enhancing our engagement with the real world rather than our engagement online.