by Ben Elowitz

Sources have told me for months that Google has been considering it, and tonight I finally saw that they pulled the trigger. 

Google just made a simple yet tricky change designed to compel brands to post on the Google+ social network.  The change is as simple as two words — free marketing — and it’s an offer that brands can’t refuse.  Google is now giving brands a free space on one of the most valuable pages in the world:  the search engine results page for users who search for their brand.  For almost every brand, their own name is the most valuable search keyword they have.

Try it right now:  search for Ferrari, and next to the familiar 10 blue links on the left, you’ll see something new and incredibly valuable:  a free advertisement for Ferrari, featuring the brand’s latest post on Google+, complete with a timestamp that demonstrates freshness and relevance – or, in the case of brands that don’t publish frequently or good enough, could shame them on a key page.

And next to it?  A big button more prominent than any link on the page enticing users to “follow” the brand on Google’s search engine.  A click on that link begins a relationship that is worth may times over the value of the first search itself.

Implicitly, Google has made a new offer to every brand on the planet:  post to Google+, and you can own a huge and prominent space on the most important page outside your own website – and build a following.

The alternative?  Don’t post – and not only forego what’s basically a free advertisement, but worse you end up leaving the results on the left side of the page to Google’s algorithm.

It plays right into the first rule of branding:  “Always control the message.”  And that’s an offer that no brand can refuse.

But it’s not just brands who would be crazy not to play.  Anyone who wants to own their own name is now being enticed with the same offer.  Celebrities and other personalities will be lured, as will anyone who cares about their reputation.  Which Google surely hopes is, well, all of us.

With this change, Google has gone nuclear against Facebook, playing their trump card in what clearly appears to be an attempt to force adoption of their own competitive social network.

In the past, Google+ leaders Vic Gundotra and Bradley Horowitz have pooh-poohed ambitions to compete with Facebook to become a social network linking consumers to each other and brands – but this new development clearly flies in the face of their prior comments.  Despite their assertion that “Google+ is just an upgrade to Google,” the reality is that Google is using its dominance in search to all but force brands to be social on its network. 

It’s beyond ballsy.

And I can’t help but be suspicious of the timing – it comes just one month after Google reached a settlement with the FTC that concluded it hasn’t violated anti-trust laws in search.  Relieved of major legal concerns in the U.S. related to its market dominance, it’s exploiting its dominance in search in an attempt to force a win in social.

Touche, Google.

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