Some Thoughts On The Downfall Of Google+

April 25 2014 04:58:06 PM Add/Read Comments [9]
NOTE: This post has been updated from its original content.

It has not been a good week for Google+. Yesterday Vic Gundotra head of the Google+ division announced he was leaving Google, then today TechCrunch is reporting 1000-1200 employees will be moved off of Google+ onto other projects.

Many of you may not even know what Google+ is, and there in lies the problem. On the surface, the easy explanation is that Google+ is Google's version of Facebook. It's a social network where people create circles of friends, family and colleagues allowing them to share status updates, pictures, videos, etc. with each other.

However, thinking of Google+ as just a social network does not do it justice. Yes, feature-wise, Google+ is far superior to Facebook. Circles are much better than lists. The Google+ stream has much more functionality than Facebook's news feed. Hangouts are far more advanced than FacebookB Messenger. Google+ photo albums are way better than Facebook's, and the list goes on. But Google+ is more of a "social layer" that a social network. The core components of Google+, including your Google ID, circles and +1's together create a framework that ties together not only Google products, but potentially any other website as well.

So why is it not as popular as Facebook?

There are two theories most commonly discussed:

1) The network effect, where the value of a service is dependant on the number of people using it. In this case, it boils down to "Everyone is already on Facebook, so why would anyone ever use Google+"? Still, there are some communities that are very active on Google+, such as photographers and writers. They have taken to Google+ because of some of the features I've mentioned above were important enough for them to move. Well probably not move, but use Google+ as well as Facebook. But for most people, Facebook does enough of what they need, so why would they use both. Essentially Facebook wins because they were there first. Sure other networks such as Pinterest, Instagram, WhatsApp have come along and won over millions of users. But in each case they provided something Facebook did not, not just a better version of it.

2) Google annoys people by pushing Google+ on them. This one is more technical and impacts less people, but if it bothers you... it really bothers you! What Google did was take Google+ and make it the unifying layer across almost all of Google's services. That means Gmail, calendar, Youtube, Piccasa, Hangouts, Drive and many other products all become linked together via Google+. For example, if you're in your Gmail you can sort or send messages by Google+ Circles. If your posting a file to Drive, you can easily share it to Google+. The one that really annoyes people is that comments on Youtube videos became conversations in Google+.

It's this second theory that troubles me the most. As someone with around 20 years of experience in collaboration software, my advice to Google would have been to do exactly what they did, integrate all their services into a more seamless platform. In fact, here's what I wrote back in 2012:

April 16, 2012 - MyPOV: Google should provide integration with Gmail, Google Docs & Google+ to make their upcoming Google Drive file sharing service standout. Imagine sharing files with specific circles. Imagine saving a file in Google Docs and broadcasting that event to your Google+ stream.

Sept 26, 2012 - I imagine a time in the near future (2013ish) where there will no longer be distinctions between Google, Google+, Google Apps, Gmail, Google Chat, etc. Instead there will just be "Google" which offers many (seamless/integrated) modes of context creation, discovery, communication and collaboration.

I wish I could predict the lottery numbers as accurately.

However, I also wrote
March 10, 2012: I've been asking the non-tech people in my life if they've heard of Google+ and the overwhelming response has been "No. Is that a new search tool?" By no means am I jumping on the "Google+ is a ghost town" bandwagon. I like Google+, but it is clear that it is still FAR from mainstream or a household name the way Facebook and Twitter are.

And that remains true still today.

Yes, Google made several "execution errors" with Google+, starting with the "real name required" scandal up the Youtube comment annoyance, but for me the network effect issue is the main reason I don't spend much time there anymore. It's a shame, because it's a great tool.

What do you think?


Here are some addition posts of mine that provide supporting information about Google+ as a "social layer"

March 11, 2012
Google 1.0 was a new company that changed the way we search for content on the internet and it became a household name.
Google 2.0 developed a set of consumer services like email, apps, maps, YouTube, etc.
Google 2.5 started to provide those services to the Enterprise and Education markets
Google 3.0 built a revenue model to layer onto #2 via advertising. The majority of non-techies probably have no idea that this is their core business
Google 4.0 is about building a new "social DNA" across all Google properties as well as across the web. This will try together people and content, and provide even more context for Google's Ad business.

June 27, 2012
I think Google is creating an incredible foundation for collaboration with circles and +1's. They are showing what's possible by building UI instances of this DNA with things like Google+, Hangouts, Events and are adding integration with Picassa, YouTube, Google Docs, Gmail and more

March 10, 2012
A private and integrated offering composed of Google Dashboard (iGoogle + Google+'s stream), Google People (Google+'s profile + a nice directory + Circles for groups), a combined version of Google Apps (email, calendar, doc, spreadsheet, presentation) and Google Sites (where circles provide access), Google Media (Video + Picassa) and Google Communications (chat + Hangouts) all wrapped with Google Search, Google Analytics and +1s would be an awesome enterprise collaboration platform.

  1. Esteban Kolsky
    1 | 4/25/2014 5:52:28 PM

    What troubles me the most, actually two things:

    1) comparing G+ to FB. G+ was a social layer to the internet, specifically designed to not be a destination but rather a gelling ingredient that brought together all the different sites and experiences (like FB does with cookies - yuck - but in a better way since the information is open and transparent - not hidden like FB does). while it had a few similar features as FB (photos, circles, streams, etc.) the value was far wider than being another social network. this inability to differentiate from the others was what brought it down eventually as the usage (which was supposed to be diff than FB) was never materialized as conceived.

    2) the model of a social layer is still far superior than a destination social network could ever become - and the inability to showcase that with G+ is troubling and relegating us to constantly using destination tools like FB - troubling indeed.

    good summary, alan

  2. Alan Lepofsky
    2 | 4/25/2014 6:06:24 PM

    Thank you for the comment Esteban, I completely agree. I've updated the main post with some of my thoughts that support your idea of social layer for the internet.

  3. Holger Mueller
    3 | 4/25/2014 6:17:25 PM

    If Google is really giving up on Google+ it would be a huge mistake IMO. The battle is for the identity for the user of the internet and have them enriched with additional information. This pits Google ultimately vs Microsoft - and Microsoft has AD in the enterprise and Office and the Xbox (and a few Nokia phones) on the consumer side. So way too early to give up.

  4. Charles Robinson
    4 | 4/25/2014 7:53:53 PM

    Frankly, I don't want a social layer. I want a destination. I want to control what I share and with whom. With Google+ I didn't get a say in it. On Facebook everything is just "Friends". One simple group that meets my needs. I couldn't figure out how to make Google+ do that. Granted, I only gave it about 15 to 20 minutes within the first few weeks it was released, but that was as long as it held my attention. In that short amount of time, Google lost me. Trying to drive people to Google+ by making it mandatory on sites such as YouTube just made me interact with YouTube less.

  5. Carl Tyler
    5 | 4/25/2014 7:55:52 PM

    I've been cutting down on Google since they killed Google reader, the cloud is great until your supplier kills the feature you use. At least with an on-premise solution you can continue to use it even if the vendor kills it.

    There are also rumours going around that Google they are going to kill Google Voice and push people to hangouts.

  6. Alan Lepofsky
    6 | 4/25/2014 8:19:21 PM

    @Charles, I agree with both your point. Pushing people to use Google+ in places like Youtube has annoyed some people. I'm not in that camp, I actually like having a single ID for Gmail, Google+, Youtube, etc. I think it makes it feel more integrated. As for who can read what you post, I guess circles take some getting used to. I think the choices of Public, Your Circles, Extended Circles was not that difficult, but to clearly it does not meet everyone's needs.

    @Carl, yes I think Google Voice will be gone. I think it makes sense for Google to reduce their plethora of audio, video, chat and voip tools to a single product. However, they need to make any transition as easy as possible for people or it provides the perfect opportunity for them to look elsewhere.

  7. +Phil Warner
    7 | 4/27/2014 2:48:42 PM

    I would also have done what a Google did. In general I find G+ good for people I don't know, but I'm interested in what they have to say, and FB good for the people I do know, even if I'm sometimes not interested in what they are saying. FB gets more of my attention because I know the people there and I get satisfaction from conversations or positive responses to what I post. That is totally missing from G+ for me, but that shouldn't mean its a failure. Google aren't getting the ad revenue I guess, so we can expect it to go the way of Google Reader. Therein lies the great contradiction in Google's business: organise the world's information, but only in ways that can generate ad revenue. Google minus.

  8. Alan Lepofsky
    8 | 4/29/2014 9:12:10 AM

    Thanks Phil. Yes, I guess if I was an advertiser I'd be choosing FB or Pinterest over G+ for my advertising dollars.