Google's Google+ gambit: The Madman theory

Is Search, Plus Your World designed to scare Facebook and Twitter to the negotiating table?

Harry McCracken
Harry McCracken is the founder and editor of Technologizer, an award-winning independent Web site about the Web, mobile tech, consumer electronics, and PCs. He also writes a weekly tech column for Time.com.
Harry McCracken
3 min read

Let me tell you a story about Richard M. Nixon and the Cold War--and yes, I promise it's relevant to a blog post about Google's controversial move to integrate its Google+ network deeply into the Google search engine.

Richard M. Nixon
President Richard M. Nixon Wikipedia

In October 1969, President Nixon secretly elevated the U.S. military to full global readiness alert and ordered bombers loaded with nuclear weapons to fly near the Soviet border. If that sounds like an impulsive and dangerous move--well, that's because Nixon wanted the Soviet leaders to believe that he was so impulsive and dangerous that he might do anything. He called his theory the Madman strategy, and hoped that it would scare the Soviets into forcing the North Vietnamese to make concessions and thereby end the Vietnam war.

Nixon's scheme was too clever by half, and it didn't work. But I thought about it when I read Danny Sullivan's interview with Google search honcho Amit Singhal on the present and future of Search, Plus Your World (SPYW), the Google feature that melds Google+ and search.

Singhal says that real people--unlike, ahem, tech pundits--are pleased with SPYW. He says critics need to give it more time and see where Google is going with it. And when Sullivan asks him questions about why other social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, aren't part of SPYW, Singhal says Google+ gets so much emphasis because other social networks won't give Google the access to their data that it needs. He also complains obliquely about Twitter's decision to end a data-sharing arrangement that Google used to power its now-defunct Realtime Search feature.

It's a sharp interview, and Singhal gives some good answers. At the end, Sullivan shares some of his own thoughts:

On a personal note, I've viewed the debate around Search Plus Your World as perhaps an opportunity to break the stalemate that's existed between Facebook and Google for years over sharing data, as well as resolve the loss of Twitter data that happened last year.

Both Facebook and Twitter have real reasons to fear that Google--with its own Google+ social network--might use their data in a way that would threaten their own businesses.

That's when the Madman strategy popped into my head. SPYW's full-on Google+/Google integration struck plenty of Google watchers as an extreme and risky move--one that might hurt the relevancy of search results and attract the attention of antitrust regulators.

What if Google's strategy for ending the stalemate with Facebook and Twitter involves a Nixonian decision to intentionally come off as impulsive and dangerous, in hopes of pressuring them to come to the negotiating table?

Google isn't just griping about Twitter not providing data--it's rolling out SPYW features that look incomplete because Twitter data is absent. And by making Google+ content so prominent in the world's most popular search engine, it's threatening Facebook's dominance of social networking in a unique way. One that might leave Facebook wanting to be part of SPYW, too.

If you're Facebook or Twitter and are concerned about SPYW's current features, you're probably even more alarmed by other actions Google might theoretically take to bolster Google+ and shut out other services. And you might conclude that its behavior so far suggests that it's capable of even more drastic measures.

I have no inside info on Google's thought processes, and I'm certainly not arguing that its executives sat around a conference table at the Googleplex and decided "let's be like Nixon!" But in the end, the company wants Facebook and Twitter to conclude that it's best if they share at least some of their social data. If it decided to impress that point on them in the boldest manner possible--rather than by asking politely--it might bring those companies to the negotiating table more swiftly.

As Singhal says, you can't judge Search, Plus Your World's potential based on this initial version. Machinations between Google, Facebook, and Twitter will play a huge part in shaping its future--and it'll be fascinating to see what it looks like a year or two from now.