Who Needs to Worry About Google+? LinkedIn, Not Facebook

Last Updated Jul 6, 2011 2:16 PM EDT

Last week, I thought that Google (GOOG) displayed naked fear in its social network wannabe, Google+. Now, on some reflection after actually being able try the system for myself, I still think that Google is scared of Facebook. But maybe it doesn't have to be.

Dave Winer, who helped invent RSS distribution on the Web, thought that Google was following a predictable gotta-kill-Facebook strategy. And he has a point. But there's something big and audacious about Google+ that's easy to miss at first. Google isn't just trying to layer social on top of search. The company has a different way of looking at social -- a way that will turn out more useful in many ways than what Facebook can achieve. Each has different strengths and neither will be able to push the other out of the way. LinkedIn (LNKD), on the other hand, now has plenty to worry about.

It's all in the layering
There are some fundamental differences in how the two companies view social, largely because of their roots. Winer is correct in thinking that Google will see things as an extension to search -- or, to put it differently, as an extension to looking for, finding, and sharing information of all sorts. When Google looks at social networking, it does think in terms of people passing on links and other information to each other. The company sees people as information hunter-gatherers, and so layers the social tools on top of the information.

Facebook, on the other hand, started as a way for people to socialize within a university. It has a different fundamental concept: direct person-to-person connections. Those people may know each other well or might have just met online. The result is that individuals are supposed to share personal information, links, or whatever else with all others with whom they're connected. Of course, Facebook does have its group functions and the ability to roughly tailor something for either everyone, friends-of-friends, or just friends. But, effectively, Facebook layers information sharing on top of the fundamental social relationships.

Each company has a particular bias in its view of the world, and that's fine. Where many of us are making a mistake is in assuming that one approach can do everything. It can't.

Not sufficient for work
Facebook can be great for connecting with people you once knew or sharing an amusing video with a group. But it is unbelievably clumsy and awkward if you want any nuance in what you want to do. That makes it a terrible communications tool for business, where you may want to easily differentiate among co-workers, customers, prospects, colleagues, and, of course, friends and family.

The problem is that it takes work. Did I just share something with the wrong group? Will people I've put into different groups sometimes get multiple copies of messages? That's not something you want for socializing. Facebook works well in that context. Or, in a business context, as a place where a company can connect with relative ease to a large group of customers.

Google+ and Facebook serve different needs and will likely coexist. But, for that reason, Google+ poses a grave danger to LinkedIn, the company that has admitted that a majority of its users don't even stop by once a month. That's because, for most of its users, LinkedIn is nothing more than a place to potentially get a job.

Google, on the other hand, is a regular stop for many, and Google+ could sit nicely atop everything of the company's that people use. For example, there's evidence that Google is testing Google+ on Google Apps, so a given organization's domain becomes a default group for sharing.

Google can more easily and naturally allow the type of business sharing that LinkedIn would do if its customers actually showed up more often. When that happens, where will businesspeople go to network on a more sustained basis? Google. And, eventually, the corporate recruiters will follow, bringing with them the time and money they once spent on LinkedIn.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.