This was originally published on Search Engine Watch (September 2012)

In what has become a meme, CEO Larry Page referred to Google+ as the company’s “social spine” in an earnings call earlier this year. As Page explains, the role of Google+ is to connect a host of products across Google’s platform.

The “social spine” metaphor not only provides insight into how Google perceives Google+ but also a glimpse into how they view Google as a platform.

If Google+ is the spine, then what is the body?

Traditionalists might respond that it is still all about search: that Google’s mission remains “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

However, another perspective, that more carefully considers why Google+ is being pushed so aggressively, may suggest a slight addendum to their initial mission: “To enable engagement by organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful.”

To gain some perspective, consider that every day:

  • 60 percent of Internet users access a search engine
  • 60 percent send or read e-mail
  • 50 percent use a social networking site
  • 45 percent get news
  • 44 percent go online “for fun”
  • 35 percent look for information on a hobby or interest
  • 34 percent check the weather
  • 28 percent look for information about politics
  • 28 percent research a product or service
  • 28 percent watch a video

Upon initial inspection, you could neatly organize these activities into one of two categories:

  • Search-and-retrieval
  • Engagement

Upon more careful consideration, one might actually perceive that these two processes aren’t mutually exclusive for once a user find the answer to their question, there is an ensuing action that normally follows. As Alexander the Great once said, “Heaven cannot brook two suns, nor earth two masters.”

The Heart

Google search is the vital organ that makes the entire body capable of sustaining life. It’s the beachhead that makes Google’s expansion possible and they have realized a simple truth: that search is social.

Google has become iconic because their original mission suited a pivotal need at the right time: it connected one group of people who exhibited a demand for information with those capable of producing it.

In some ways, Google was almost like a ubiquitous BBS, supporting asynchronous communication on a global scale. As the tools of information production and consumption have evolved, the velocity of Internet mediated communications has increased. To remain competitive, Google has had to expand their view and look at search as a piece of a larger whole.

To better understand how they are doing this, consider the following result set for “general contractor” in “San Francisco”:


In this depiction, we see how “the spine” is at work, connecting search with engagement. The key in all this, is Google search itself. As the primary driver of traffic to the platform, it’s role has evolved from being the body into being an organ of the body, albeit the most important one.

The Brain

If Google+ is the spine that connects the various parts of the body and Google search is the heart, there must be something that makes sense of it all. The organ that regulates the various functions within the body is the brain, and with Google, this is the underlying big data information system.

The Knowledge Graph helps Google understand the connection between formerly disparate entities. It is what allows Google to understand what engagement module to serve based on the user query.

In the example above, it is what allows Google to abstract an entity from a given result (Swinerton Inc), provide information about its attributes and show related entities. It is what regulates the entire system and makes connection possible.


Oxygen creates the possibility for life to exist and without it, even the most perfectly structured organism would be lifeless and essentially irrelevant. The digital information created by a countless array of individuals, is the oxygen that Google breathes.

As online marketing professionals, we spend every day trying to think about how to conform to meet Google’s changing standards but ultimately, we should always remember a simple truth: Google is a service for people and without them, it’s just a bunch of lifeless code sitting on a server farm somewhere.

What Does This All Mean?

Organs in a body are interconnected: Just like a living person, Google is relying on all its organs to work if it is to transcend its roots as “just” a search engine. In a memorable answer to a question on how to most effectively build links, Matt Cutts focuses almost exclusively on sharing and collaboration as the most effective ways to power off-page SEO. For search practitioners, placing your sole focus on search (and neglecting the other organs) becomes a recipe for mediocrity.

Don’t forget about the brain: Google has been focusing on its spine (Google+) quite a bit but don’t forget that the brain (its underlying information system) is equally as important. One of the most pivotal organizational components to the Google “body” is the Knowledge Graph, as it will inform Google on how to create an integrated user experience across its product line. Staying informed on how Google is leveraging semantic search will help you get a leg up on your competitors as Google’s platform strategy continues to unfold.

Decide if you’re a medical technician or a physician: A medical technician typically has a two-year specialized education and focuses on one specific area of health care. Physicians can go through as many as 15 years of study and training because they need to understand the body in its entirety before focusing on one area. If you approach search as though it is an isolated organ, you can carve out a niche for yourself but you’ll never be running the show.