Google's integration of Google+ into its core search service should dispel any illusions that the company's social platform will die the death of its predecessors.
Yes, Google+ currently feels like a nerd sanctuary, and yes, the company screwed up previous social efforts such as Wave and Buzz, but Google is deadly serious about this one.
When Larry Page promised last October that Google would "[bake] identity and sharing into all of our products", he meant it. Less than three months later, Google+ is already built into YouTube, Chrome, Gmail, Reader and now Google Search itself.
Wave and Buzz were experimental. If Google+ were to fail, it would now take — at the very least — a huge chunk of Google's reputation with it. The only way in which this could be avoided is if people loathe Google+ so much that they actively disable it en masse for their Android phones, Google Search and the rest — if that happens, then Google could ditch it and few would notice. People are generally apathetic about such things, so that won't happen.
So what does this move do for Google? The company is already king of the search world, with an 80 percent global market share. This move is unlikely to increase its share, as search, rather than Google+, remains the driver here. It may create a unique-enough experience to fend off Bing, which people are starting to realise is a decent alternative, but then again it could send people Bing's way if it skews results to too great a degree.
But Bing and the Bing-powered Yahoo search collectively have around nine percent market share. Baidu has ten percent, but that's mostly a China-specific service. Google's position in the search market is not seriously under threat.
The real rival here, of course, is Facebook. And the funny thing is, despite the fact that Google+ and Facebook are both social networks, I'm not even sure that characteristic is in itself the battleground. You know that annoying thing when you install a new browser or service and the damn thing keeps trying to get you to change your homepage? That's what this war is about.
As Jack Clark has already explained in his 'new feudalism' article, Google and Facebook are both trying to gather as big a user base as possible, in order to exploit those users' identities and make lots of money in the process.
The two companies are coming at it from different sides, of course. Facebook started with social networking and is now using platform-specific apps such as those for the Guardian and Independent to make sure people who want to follow a shared link don't have to leave Facebookland to do so.
Google, being first and foremost a search company, is coming at it from the other side. While iGoogle has its uses, it is too cluttered a portal, so Google is using the social element to keep its search engine the de facto entry point and standard browsing launchpad. It's a defensive manoeuvre, perhaps, but it may work. Cue maintained profits.
As for you and me, the users, it can at least be said that we don't have to put up with 'Search plus Your World' if we don't want to. I would certainly advise those who already grumble about Google's results-tailoring cookies to toggle the new service off.
And I'd also advise people to stop predicting Google+'s imminent demise. That's now like predicting the downfall of Google itself — could happen, but don't hold your breath.