Last week, Google announced that Google+ (aka, “Google Plus” or “G+”) has reached 170 million users.  By any measure, that is a truckload of users; but it is staggering when you consider that G+ is less than a year old.  That makes the infant G+ roughly the size of LinkedIn (150mm registered users).  And, while G+ is still only 20% of the size of Facebook, it has clearly arrived, requiring lawyers to strongly consider it as part of their online branding and business development strategies.

A Quick G+ Primer

For the uninitiated, G+ is a lot like Facebook.  However, G+ does make it easier to share and filter content based on different groups of friends (Circles), to discover things based on your interests (Sparks), and to “Like” content right in Google search results (+1 button).

Here is a quick “Beginners Guide to Google Plus” posted to YouTube.  It’s a little rough, but it offers a solid tutorial on what G+ is all about.

Why You Should Care About G+

I think it’s as simple as this:  If you think Google is important, then you should probably find G+ important.  At least that is Google’s prophecy, and they have the resources to self-fulfill that prophecy.  Surely some of you, exhausted from the cornucopia of social media sites available to your practice, will simply say, “Sorry – can’t deal with another one.”  But I do think G+ is different from other up-and-coming social media sites (e.g., Pinterest, Foursquare, Reddit, etc.) for the following reasons:

Google is “all-in” when it comes to G+:  In different conversations with the Google folks, it is clear that G+ is a top strategic priority for them.  One Google person said to me, “When it comes to G+, we are all-in.”  I’m pretty sure that means Google will spend whatever it takes to make G+ successful.  With $49 billion of cash on hand and solid distribution alternatives through search (see below), mobile (Android, Google Talk, etc.) and social media (YouTube, Blogger.com, Picasa, etc.), Google’s “all-in” is worth any lawyer’s attention.

Google is tying G+ to their search:  As part of Google’s three billion searches per day (yes, per day), they are heavily promoting G+.   For lawyers, this is currently most important in name search, as Google is prioritizing your G+ profile over all other profiles, whether it be LinkedIn, Facebook or Avvo.  Google also allows you to tie your G+ profile to your different content around the Web using “rel=me” or “rel=author” html tags which will serve that content higher when someone searches you.*

Google is also personalizing search results for content based on what you and your G+ Circles share (both on profiles and through +1), and they are even promoting search-relevant G+ profiles and content to non-G+ users in search results.  For a great discussion of how Google is tying together G+ and search, watch this video by SEOMoz’s Rand Fishkin.  It is 12 minutes well spent.  However, as a quick example of how the G+ search personalization works for lawyers, imagine that your cousin uses G+.  If she clicks on the +1 button on your firm’s homepage, that page will serve higher for those in your cousin’s Circles when they are searching for a lawyer in your practice area.  Pretty nifty if your cousin has a really large network.

Google will merge G+ and Google Places:  Google Places is Google’s local search functionality.  If Google thinks you are searching for something in a specific locale, it will serve up a map pinpointing local search results for your consuming pleasure.  This includes lawyers.  In 2012, I am confident we will see Google merge G+ and Places, making G+ important for serving higher, more often in local search results.   This will mean that you *and your firm* will need a G+ profile.

G+ Word of Warning

Lawyers have been forwarding us emails they have received from consultants offering to put them or their firm at the top of G+ search results.  These consultants profess to have some sort of insider’s knowledge regarding G+ that they will sell to you for a hefty fee.

Please don’t buy the hype.

Keep in mind that Google is changing your search results based on what you and your Circles tell G+.  This means that for lawyers to have their practice-related content (e.g., website, blog post, etc.) to serve higher in Google search results due to G+ activity, they must have large Circles and share that content with them.  For that content to show up beyond the lawyer’s Circles, your Circles must in-turn share your content with their Circles.  So what you will need in the end is really big G+ Circles who in-turn have really big Circles and everyone needs to be doing lots of sharing.  While anyone can build the necessary Circles and sharing over time, no consultant can build this for you overnight.

Also keep in mind that just because your content serves higher in your search results, don’t think you are winning.  Again, Google is personalizing your search results and simply serving to you websites that you have indicated are important to you.  No surprise that you are important to you.  If you really want to see how your website or other content is ranking, logout of G+ or use a clean browser and see what Google serves up in response to your search.

Closing Thoughts

I should mention that not everyone sees a bright future for G+.  Here’s a recent Forbes article where the author predicts G+ will remain a niche player.  Now I’m not sure how 170 million users is niche, but the author makes the solid point that G+ has a long way to go before people start switching from Facebook.

We’ll also see if U.S. or European regulators have anything to say about the bundling of G+ with their very dominant search engine.  Google launched much of G+ as “Search, plus Your World,” speaking to the benefits of search personalization.  We’ll see if it ends up becoming “Google, plus their Antitrust Lawsuit” . . . but until then, with Google as the incubator, G+ has a leg up that rivals that of Jesus getting into heaven.

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