Four years ago, Facebook was a rising star. The company had built the ultimate social walled garden -- almost a separate alternative to the Internet at large.
Sure, Facebook hadn't become profitable. And they weren't public. But the writing was on the wall, so to speak. Facebook was commanding eyeballs and generating traffic and would soon be a force to contend with. More importantly, it was becoming clear even then that social would be the future of online ad revenue.
Google, meanwhile, had tried and failed with multiple social network-like initiatives, including Orkut, Wave and Buzz. But by the fall of 2010, Google had struck on a clear position about social. Instead of relying on a Facebook-like walled garden, then Google CEO Eric Schmidt said, Google would pursue a strategy of a universal "social layer" in all their products.
The Google "social layer," would be an inside-out social network. Instead of social networking being a place you go, the social network would exist everyplace you go. You'd be able to do the Google equivalent of Facebook "Liking," "poking," "sharing," and "commenting" on all Google sites and from within all Google apps.
And, in fact, Google started building explicit sharing features into services like Google Reader and others. (Google later killed Reader off.)
After Google co-founder Larry Page took over as CEO in April of 2011, his first order of business was a clumsy offer to employees: He sent a company-wide memo tying 25% of every employee's bonus to Google's success in social.
At the time, I strongly criticized in this space Page's bonus program and the the "social layer" strategy.
Then came Google+
In the summer of 2011, Google announced the rollout of Google+ as an invitation-only "field test." Google+ was -- and is -- clearly a social network, among other things. But it was never a walled garden. From the beginning, public Google posts were viewable by anyone with an Internet connection. And any post could be addressed to any email address, and off it would go as an email. (Facebook later copied the former feature but not the latter.)
Industry watchers said that Google+ was the death of Google's "social layer" approach to social. But they were wrong.
Google is an "all of the above" company. They don't choose between good strategies. They pursue all of them. Even while creating a social network, they also pursued the social layer. They used Google+ for logins, and increasingly for other sites like YouTube and Google Play.
The most social layerish product of all is +Post Ads. A business can turn a post into a banner ad that appears on other web sites. When people click on it, they can interact with the post as if it were on Google+.
After Google+ opened to the public, both Google and Facebook went through a phase where they decided that the business model was identity. Both social networks started saying they would require people to use their "real names" in order to use the service. The idea was that in order to monetize people, the social networks needed to know exactly who you really were. Facebook even experimented with requiring users to send scans of their passports and driver's licences to prove identity.