It's been a couple of years since Google launched its first attempt at a social network. Called Google Buzz, its launch was hampered by the decision to automatically join everyone with a Gmail account, whether they wanted to be part of it or not. Google hasn't formally scrapped Buzz but it's not looking in rude health with last year's launch of Google+.
Another network to launch recently is the picture-based Pinterest. So is this going to be the next Facebook or is it more likely to finish like last year's launch of the specialist 'question and answer' service Quora - a whole load of fuss followed by, well, not much?
This article isn't an attempt to say who the winners will be in the social media race (if indeed there is an end point). Rather it will explain some of these new networks and offer tips on what to look for when you evaluate a new network and decide whether it's going to be useful to you.
Why is it special?
Obviously the first thing to check is whether a new network fulfils an actual need. Take Quora for instance, in which members ask questions and other people answer them. There was a lot of interest initially and indeed it's still going - but you have to ask, what does it do that Twitter doesn't? You can already ask a question in plenty of other places.
This doesn't always hold true. YouTube is widely known as a place that offers the chance to share videos. So was MySpace, which got there first - but its grip on the market was softening as YouTube launched. The quieter design also appealed to a wider audience.
This is where Pinterest, which enables people to highlight interesting images they've seen - with a link straight back to where they found them, comes in. This isn't, therefore, just a photo site but a links site as well. Yes, you can share visual links on Facebook in the same way but it's not as exclusively visual. Whether the market will take hold of this longer-term is uncertain but at least the market has something to accept or reject.
Search engine optimisation
Another important element of social links, at least from the point of view of commercial companies linking their goods and services, is that external links coming into your site push you further up the search engines. This is part of a process known as 'search engine optimisation' (SEO), which does what it says on the tin - it makes a website search engine friendly.
An extension of this happens on Google+, Google's new(ish) network. Businesses can add a 'Plus One' button to their sites or to individual products or services they are offering, and people with a Google+ account can tap this in the same way as they would a Facebook 'Like' button.
So far this all looks like a bit of fun - except it's owned by Google, which also owns the biggest search engine on the internet. Google takes the 'Plus One' buttons quite seriously: the more +1s your service gets, the better the placing when people search on Google. For this reason Google+ is likely to be around for a while, although a lot of research shows people aren't conversing on it a great deal.
Which is right for you?
Deciding whether to join a particular network is an individual decision. There are a few questions you can usefully ask yourself before joining one, though:
- Does it do anything new? Earlier in this article I asked whether Pinterest was going to be the new Facebook - it's not, there is currently no vacancy for someone wanting to be a new Facebook. New networks really need to offer something different.
- If it does something different, does it appeal to you? If you don't have a particularly visual sensibility and don't take many pictures, do you really need a channel on Flickr, for example?
- Is anyone else about to do the same thing better?
- Do you actually have the time to do anything with yet another social network..?
Learn how to use Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites with the WebWise online guides.
Guy Clapperton is a journalist specialising in writing about technology as well as small business for several major broadsheets. He broadcasts occasionally on BBC Radio stations and reviews the newspapers on the BBC News Channel.