Larry Page's identity crisis: the dead weight of Google+

At the start of this year I wrote a piece entitled "Why Google+ is here to stay, like it or not". Well, it turned out people don't like it, and that's a big problem for Google and its leader.

At the start of this year I wrote a piece entitled "Why Google+ is here to stay, like it or not". Well, it turned out people don't like it, and that's a big problem for Google and its leader.

I maintain the central thesis of that article, which was that Google+ is far too integral to Larry Page's Google to be cast aside like previous social failures Buzz and Wave. But what was a suspicion then is now quite clear — Google+ just isn't gaining traction.

Failure

The dead giveaway was the TV ad campaign that kicked off in recent weeks. When I first saw it, my immediate thought was: "You don't see Facebook needing to advertise." The ad shows off Google+'s finest features, such as circles and hangouts, but it wouldn't need to exist if those features were enough to entice the general public.

Larry Page

Google+ is integral to Larry Page's vision for Google, but is it a failure? Image credit: Stephen Shankland/CNET News

It's not like Google+ didn't have a torrent of publicity when it launched. Its early invitation-only stage and the consequent hype ensured blow-by-blow coverage in the general as well as tech-focused media. It had a solid start. Social endeavours either go viral or they don't. We'd know by now.

Not that we actually do know how many people actively use Google+. Somewhat ominously, Google's claim of 50 million daily active users and 100 million monthly active users is based on a rather odd definition of an active user: anyone who signs into Google services that are 'optimised' for Google+.

In other words, anyone who signs into Gmail, YouTube or pretty much any Google service, since Page decided that Google+ had to be "baked" into the lot. The real tally for people who seek to be social in Google+ on a daily basis has to be significantly lower than 50 million.

In my own experience, I only visit Google+ once a week or so, and I don't find much going on. Posts get shared a bit, there's the occasional post that ignites a discussion among the hardcore, but beyond that? The real eye-opener for me was posting, "Is Facebook turning into AOL? Discuss", and receiving not one comment from my hundreds of followers, all of whom are tech people. That question, on Google+. I mean, come on.

Page's project

Larry Page took over as Google's CEO one year ago. He established the distinction of his strategy from that of predecessor Eric Schmidt by going on about the company putting "more wood behind fewer arrows".

The reject arrows were the wonderful Google Labs, which had given the company Maps and Docs, and otherwise-useful side projects such as Code Search. Sure, some stuff clearly did have to go, but for some inside the organisation, the abandonment of the old entrepreneurial Google for a leaner but entirely ad-revenue-focused Google was too much to bear.

When Google test director James Whitaker quit in March, he summed up the whole Google+ fiasco quite brilliantly, calling it out as the we-have-to-beat-Facebook reactive measure it was: "Google was the rich kid who, after having discovered he wasn't invited to the party, built his own party in retaliation. The fact that no-one came to Google's party became the elephant in the room."

Google+ is the identity glue that's supposed to make all of Google's successful services more profitable and, as such, is where the wood went. It's not the only reason those other services were killed off, but many were probably pulped because they didn't fit into the greater identity-exploitation scheme.

The problem is that Google's treatment of identity is fundamentally broken. That's largely because of Gmail's popularity as both a consumer and enterprise product.

Mistaken identity

I have multiple Gmail and therefore Google accounts, and I can't get them to coexist. I know you're supposed to be able to have multiple Google logins operating concurrently in (Google's) Chrome, my browser of choice, but it just doesn't work properly.

Google's treatment of identity is fundamentally broken. That's largely because of Gmail's popularity as both a consumer and enterprise product.

So here's my set-up: personal Apps account on Chrome and work Apps account on IE. Now throw into the mix my third, bog-standard Gmail account that I only use for my Google+ profile and as my primary Android account (the one I use to buy apps).

While the Chrome/IE thing is out of necessity, the fact that I maintain a separate Google account for Google+ is deliberate — I simply don't want to be tracked online in a way that ties into my personal data. Oh, and I also refuse to run Google+ on my Android phone, despite the fact that the damn thing tries to download it every. Single. Morning.

Maybe my desire for privacy makes me an extreme case, but the personal/work account split alone is enough to seriously mess up the coherence of my 'Google identity'. And there are millions like me, or at least a bit like me. How on earth is Google going to reconcile all those fragments into genuinely useful data? How is it going to build a complete picture of who I am? Poor Google.

The issue of fragmented identity is longstanding and can bear partial responsibility for the fact that people sign up for new third-party services using identity mechanisms from Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, not from Google. People only tend to have one identity for each of those successful social networks.

Could Google fix the problem? I don't know — there's usually a good reason for separating personal from work accounts and a strong desire, on the part of both workers and employers, to maintain the split.

This post is already too long without me going into the company's other two big problems — Android's tepidness in the tablet market, and regulators — but Larry Page's reputation is stuck with a dead weight that he created, and that he cannot shift.

So where to from here? The least likely scenario is that the ad campaign works to a meaningful degree, and Google+ is revived. Another possibility would be privacy regulators neutering Google's identity ambitions. At least that would give Page an excuse.

It's more likely that Google's co-founder will have to kill Google+ or significantly scale it back. Either option would require that the company reinvent itself again, and neither would look good for Page.

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