Google+ seems to be the social network that people love to hate. The industry almost has an internal clock about when to print the next article about Google+ dying.
So what’s the real story here? Is Google+ going to die soon? Should you invest time in it?
I will outline the way I look at it in today’s post, and while I will bring in many discussion points, bear in mind that for Google it’s all about the data.
Whether or not Google+ lives or dies will be determined by its utility as a data source, because data is money for Google.
Read on for all the details of this story.
Media piranhas in action
To recount all the stories about Google+ dying would take many thousands of words, so I will start with a short recap of some of the latest examples.
Here is an excerpt from the TechCrunch article:
According to two sources, Google has apparently been reshuffling the teams that used to form the core of Google+, a group numbering between 1,000 and 1,200 employees. We hear that there is a new building on campus, so many of those people are getting moved physically, as well — not necessarily due to Gundotra’s departure.
As part of these staff changes, the Google Hangouts team will be moving to the Android team, and it is likely that the photos team will follow, these people said. Basically, talent will be shifting away from the Google+ kingdom and towards Android as a platform, we’re hearing.
As it later turned out, these stories were not true; the Google+ team was simply moved to another building to get more space.
Here is what Yonatan Zunger, Chief Architect for Google+ said about it in a comment on a Google+ post:
I can also add that it is true that somewhere around 1,200 Google+ employees moved to another building. That would in fact be the entire Google+ team, as we outgrew our old building and were packed in like sardines. The new building is great.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the situation more than the October 7, 2014 interview that Google+ head Dave Besbris gave to recode.net: We’re Here for the Long Haul.
Besbris made many comments indicating that Google+ is not going anywhere, including:
We’re actually very happy with the progress of Google+. [CEO Larry Page] said this at the time that Vic transitioned that he is going to continue working on building this stuff, that he is very happy with it. The company is behind it. I have no idea where these rumors come from, to be honest with you.
Danny Sullivan then quickly responded in a post on Google+, citing the interview as evidence that there are problems with Google+.
As Sullivan explained, Besbris’s refusal to cite user base numbers was likely an indication that there was no good news to share. Or, to summarize, no news is bad news.
However, note that Dave Besbris did say this: “The Google+ app you see out there today is used by hundreds of millions of users.”
But then, you get more recent posts like this one, Nobody is Using Google+, that claim there are really only four to six million users creating real posts. On and on it goes.
So, what’s up with Google+, then?
I have been active on Google+ since July 2013. Through my experiences on the network, I have seen many markets where there is vibrant activity on Google+ and others where there is not much happening at all.
There are a lot of people on the network, and I have made many great contacts there. Keep in mind, as well, that participation doesn’t only include creating your own posts. Clicking the +1 button on a website is a great data point for Google, too.
However, I don’t think that Google+ has really been a true success for Google so far.
But will they shut it down? Or is there enough data coming from it for them to keep it around and continue to work on it?
To consider those questions, I am going to discuss 10 different arguments people make about Google+, the social network — five of these will be against it, and five for it — and I will explain my reaction to each.
Arguments people make against Google+
1. Google+ is not a Facebook killer
But does that make it a failure?
Sure, Google would love to build a true rival to Facebook, but if that was their goal, it was simply not a realistic one, at least with the type of path they chose.
By this metric, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, and all the other social networks are failures, too. This argument, by itself, is a non-issue.
2. Google+ is a ghost town
From my time on the network, I can tell you this is not entirely true. There is a lot happening on Google+, and not just among digital marketers.
The last shared numbers from Google were 300 million active monthly users, theoretically making it larger than Twitter.
Frankly, though, I think we can’t place too much stock in these numbers, from any of the social networks. In many ways, these are apples-and-oranges comparisons.
However, I think we can safely say that Google wishes that Google+ was much bigger than it is now, because that would provide them with a lot more data to leverage. They pushed this network aggressively, and they would like to have gotten a lot more from it.
3. Author photos and Authorship are gone
It would have been nice if the publishing world had adopted Authorship tagging en masse, but the reality is that they didn’t. This is indeed a disappointment for Google, but I doubt that it’s a fundamental issue for Google+.
4. Hangouts are now unbundled
While there is now a separate Google Hangouts app, you can’t start a Hangout on Air without a Google+ account, nor can you use any of the social features without one.
So, is this a defeat for Google+? Not at all.
The separate app makes it easier for people to engage with Google Hangouts. Score this as a win for Google’s overall social media effort. And Google+ helped foster and launch this new development.
5. Will photo capabilities become unbundled, too?
Not so fast, that’s still a rumor, not yet confirmed by anyone at Google. Even if it does happen, as with Hangouts, don’t be surprised if this is done in a way that helps drive more interest to Google+.
In addition, look what Facebook did with Instagram — it kept it as a separate network. Why did they do that? Because users like their social media apps unbundled and don’t want a monolithic platform. Pretty smart, I’d say.
Arguments people make for Google+
6. Google+ is Google
This is something that those who are passionate about Google+ like to say, but I think they would be better off if they stopped saying it.
The basis of the argument is that Google+ was the driver for creating unified logins and social profiles across all Google products, as well as the +1 button.
However, they can eliminate Google+, the social platform, at this point and keep the login requirement, user profiles, and +1 buttons.
7. New features keep on coming
The Google+ team has released new features in the past year, such as Google+ polls, Google My Business, view counts, page insights, major Android and iPhone app upgrades, and more.
Clearly, they are still investing in it. On the other hand, none of these are revolutionary features. Google+ feels much like a “me too” type of network, and this is one of its great weak points.
8. The Google+ team is growing
While Besbris also did not reveal the number of employees working on Google+, he did say this about the size of the team: “We’re the largest we’ve ever been.”
However, it’s not entirely clear what they’re doing. It seems like a small number of features have been released in the last year, compared to the supposed size of the Google+ team.
Could they be working on the next generation of G+? A real possibility, in my mind.
In fact, on January 10, Medium released this interview with Demis Hassabis on some of the investments that Google is making in Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Hassabis co-founded DeepMind, a company that was bought by Google for $400 million. Here is what he had to say:
In six months to a year’s time we’ll start seeing some aspects of what we’re doing embedded in Google Plus, natural language and maybe some recommendation systems.
9. Having hundreds of millions of active user profiles is gold
This is one of the huge payoffs of Google+. Even if people only periodically +1 a piece of content, that’s huge for Google because it’s data.
People who diss Google+ for its lack of monetization are not getting the significance of this single aspect of the network (see the next point).
The number of users they have is the reason why I think Google will choose to build on their current base, instead of starting something new from scratch.
10. Personalization is a big deal
Building on the prior point, this is clearly very important to Google. The personalization aspects of Google+ are significant. Note that Mark Traphagen suggests that as many as 60 percent of all searchers conduct their searches while logged in.
If you are not familiar with personalization, you can read some of the basics of how it works here.
The short explanation is that Google can use information it learns about you through your use of Google+ to tailor search results for you to more closely meet your preferences. Google learns about your preferences when you click a +1 button on a website or give a +1 to a Google+ post.
Now here is the key point: this makes Google+ a source of revenue for Google. How? Personalization allows for more targeted ads and a higher click-through rate as a result.
How much do they make because of this? We don’t know, but my bet is that this nets them more than enough to pay for the engineering team working on G+.
Personalization also increases user satisfaction with Google’s search results and helps increase ad revenues.
To present one example of this, you can read about page-load time tests done by Google and Bing here. These tests showed how even small changes in usability impacted actual levels of usage of the search engines.
The bottom line for Google
So what about all the media people questioning Google+?
They have every right to do so, and I do think many of their criticisms are on point. Google+ is not a true success as is.
It’s a network that most people don’t know exists, that many other people choose to avoid, and that even has ex-employees who write scathing commentaries about how they messed it up (warning: lots of four-letter words in this article).
I don’t think Google’s social network is where they want it be. However, I don’t think stating “Google+ is dead” forms the right conclusion either.
Here are the four main points that statement overlooks:
1. Surrender is not an option
Google is hungry for as many sources of data about people as they can get, and social media activity is one great way to do that.
2. Google+ is a component of a larger social media strategy
There are many out there who consider Google a failure in social media.
While Google certainly failed to properly pursue Buzz, Orkut, and Wave, they own YouTube, the world’s largest video-sharing platform — so that puts that assertion to rest right there.
And, Google+ does have a major audience that it can build on.
The Hangout and photo-sharing capabilities really rock. Even if they are partially unbundled, these may potentially do quite well on their own. That’s not a failure; it’s a starting point.
3. Google+ creates some revenue for Google right now
I made this point above, but it bears repeating. Personalized search is not just for organic search — it results in better ad targeting, too.
Google’s ads have high click-through rates, which drive incremental revenue.
4. What are Google’s options if Google+ is a failure?
If we assume, for the sake of argument, that the social network is a failure, Google has three main options:
- Start over. That’s a problematic strategy, because they will be even further behind where they are now.
- Buy a major competitor. Unfortunately, there is no viable competitor for them to buy. I do believe that they will buy other social media sites, but the purpose of the purchases will be to fill holes in a broader social media strategy.
- Build on what they have. As Besbris noted in his recent interview, they have hundreds of millions of users, and that makes a great starting place for any long-term strategy in social.
They’re in it for the long haul
So here is where I am at with this: Google is not going to let go for a better grip. They are likely contemplating major changes to Google+.
For further proof, see the Medium article I reference above. They are certainly working on features they think can end up having many hundreds of millions of users.
They clearly recognize that G+ is not a success in its current form. They need to offer large-scale differentiation, and they have not done so yet.
However, I believe that they will use the current Google+ as the platform on which they build these features, in one manner or another.
When Dave Besbris says, “We’re here for the long haul,” you can put that in the bank.
Over to you
Are you active on Google+? Do you regularly use its features?
Are other social channels more valuable to you?
What are your predictions about the future of the social network?
Flickr Creative Commons Image via Lee Nachtigal.