Google Plus: three years old and still failing as a social network

Google Plus: three years old and still failing as a social network

Summary: Google Plus has just celebrated its third birthday, but the service was virtually ignored in Google's I/O conference, and it's still not clear whether it has much of a future. The service may be less than the sum of its parts....

TOPICS: Google

Google Plus celebrated its third birthday yesterday (Saturday), though perhaps "celebrated" is not the right word. The service is popular with some Google fans — particularly keen Android and Chrome users. However, it's hated by some YouTube and Google Play users, because of the forced integration for comments and reviews, and ignored by the vast majority.

Not even Google seems to care much about G+ nowadays, despite the protestations of Google co-founder Larry Page in an interview with the New York Times. But the facts suggest otherwise. G+ got very little coverage at Google's huge annual I/O conference last week, and as reported here earlier, the vice president who launched it — Vic Gundotra — has left the company.

Google is also back-pedalling on the way it was using Google search to encourage authors like me to use the service. The idea was that we'd get our profile photos shown next to search results, along with so-called "circle counts". This would make our stories stand out and thus encourage readers to click them. However, on June 25, Google's John Mueller announced that both photos and circle counts were being dropped.

ziff-mueller (200 x 185)

Mueller's G+ post notes, in parentheses, that "Our experiments indicate that click-through behavior on this new less-cluttered design is similar to the previous one."

No, he's not saying that authors will get as many clicks as they did before, and I'm sure they won't. He is saying that Google is getting similar results, presumably because people click results just as often — but maybe not the ones that used to be highlighted. Either way, there is now less incentive for people to associate their blog posts etc with G+, and even less incentive to accumulate a lot of followers.

But the main problem for authors and businesses using G+ is that it doesn't drive much traffic, in the way that Facebook and Pinterest drive traffic. This is obvious from websites that show the number of times content has been posted to the various services, and from traffic logs compiled by tracking companies. The Marketing Land website said it's Not A Ghost Town, But A Social Referral Graveyard.

For example, Shareaholic's latest Social Media Traffic Report says "Facebook is the supreme king of social referrals", driving "21.25 percent of the overall traffic sites received". Pinterest was a long way behind with 7.10 percent, with G+ at only 0.08 percent. In other words, it's irrelevant. What may be worse is that YouTube's performance collapsed by more than half from December to March, albeit only from 0.19 percent to 0.09 percent. It would be interesting to know if the enforced integration with G+ is having a negative impact on YouTube.

It is, of course, unfair to compare G+ to Facebook, because G+ simply doesn't work as the same sort of social network. The vast majority of visible interactions on G+ are not with friends but with people you don't know and don't care about. Your friends and family are not on G+, they're on Facebook. So in almost any comparison between G+ and Facebook, G+ is going to lose.

G+ is more of a lightweight blogging platform, or a heavyweight version of Twitter. It naturally suffers from some of the same problems as Twitter, including a very high abandonment rate — even assuming all the people with G+ profiles know they have them. (It would be nice to be specific but G+ doesn't seem to have the third-party tools that let you find out how many of your Twitter followers are inactive or are never coming back.)

The problem with G+ working as a sort of souped-up bulletin board, like Reddit or Slashdot, is Google's insistence on real identities. Those services work well partly because you can be pseudonymous and have multiple identities, and can engage in debates without them necessarily being found by colleagues, potential employers etc. So, in comparisons between G+ and Reddit, G+ is going to lose again.

From the users' point of view, G+ has thus managed to get the worst of both worlds.

The real problem with G+, of course, is that it was not designed to meet users' needs, but to meet Google's. It's a way for Google to tie together all the information it gets from reading your emails, from tracking the websites you visit, and from Android phone users, with a real identity. This is implicit in what Larry Page told the New York Times: "People forget we’re able to make our services better by understanding your relationships, making sharing work and understanding identity. These are deep and important things for us as a company."

In this case, the most important of "our services" is targeted Google advertising. That's what brings in the billions that enables Google to buy dozens of companies, and expand into new areas such as smartphones and smartwatches, robotics, self-driving cars, internet access and all the rest.

The talk of G+ forming a "social spine" for Google services is less than convincing. The main advantage for users is a single sign-on across Google services, but that works perfectly well with any old Gmail address, including a pseudonymous one. It doesn't need a flaky social network behind it. And whether a single sign-on is actually an advantage is another matter. Not every YouTube user (or Google Play reviewer) agrees.

Google has a track record of failing in social networking. Orkut, its first effort, was launched at the same time as Facebook, in 2004, so it's wrong to claim Google was "late to social". Google then bought Dodgeball and Jaiku, a Twitter-like service, but neither went anywhere. Wave (2009) and Buzz (2010) flamed out like meteors. G+ is at least doing better than those, but YouTube, Hangouts, Picasa, Google Play and other products might be better off without it. G+ may well be less than the sum of its parts.



Topic: Google

Jack Schofield

About Jack Schofield

Jack Schofield spent the 1970s editing photography magazines before becoming editor of an early UK computer magazine, Practical Computing. In 1983, he started writing a weekly computer column for the Guardian, and joined the staff to launch the newspaper's weekly computer supplement in 1985. This section launched the Guardian’s first website and, in 2001, its first real blog. When the printed section was dropped after 25 years and a couple of reincarnations, he felt it was a time for a change....

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • "YouTube's performance collapsed by more than half"

    I think you've missed the point here. The figures are about "social activity", not 'users' - YouTube has certainly not halved in popularity, but the change in the way Google has treated the 'discussions' has markeedly reduced the hate and troll activity. Still a long way to go, but I'd call that a success for G+. In general terms, YouTube is as popular as ever.
    • G+ is great for us

      exactly, the author thinks everything must be "social" = a very limited view

      I do not care if it is "social" but G+ is simply more useful (photos, videos sharing, calendar, security etc.) than vulnerable and dangerous Facebook
      Jiří Pavelec
      • Explain

        Explain specifically what you mean by vulnerable dangerous.
        Buster Friendly
        • Errr....

          It's the code word used by people who don't want to admin whatever they use is a failure when they talk about their favorite product versus the competition.
      • But if no one is on then

        what are you gaining? I think you guys are exactly who he is referring to in the article.
        • no one on?

          I spend more time on g+than Facebook for a very simple reason. The quality of the people I come in contact with is much higher. There are more people of better quality than that other social network.
          Every time I see an article like this, I see the same things. The author doesn't understand what g+ is about. It's not about accumulating followers and being the star. It's not about driving people to your blog or looking larger than life.
          G+ is about being part of a community, several actually. This is where these bloggers all fail. They haven't learned from those who use g+. They haven't really attempted to use it. They've just tried to make it another Facebook and that won't work. It's not and hopefully never will be like that. It's brilliant as it is. You just have to let it be.
          • What article did you read?

            actually this article is not addressed to you, it's for the rest of us who are not assholian elitists. So read and insult readers elsewhere! Thank you.
          • Huh?

            "Quality" of people? Better looking? Mature? Have money? Google shareholders?

            I think "quality" depends on whom your friends are. If you have a bunch of childish immature friends, that is your decision to associate with.
      • True BUT

        Indeed and the author says the same at the end of the article! The plus just isn't. It is not a plus for users that is.
    • but, but...

      aren't lynch mobs social? and social is the most important thing right?
    • Nope

      Google did an about face and let people post anonymously via an alternate account.

      Still, the network would have been just fine if they left it alone and didn't force it on people.
      • Google Finally decides to Abandon Orkut

        General questions: Does this mean we are only facing the quiet before the storm for Google+? Will Google return to its high pressure controlling personally invasive tactics. How many social media outlets are left for Google to mine under its wing?
        • doubt G+ is going anywhere.

          has more than 300 million active users.. that's too big to abandon.. I suspect it's going to undergo a change, and maybe a name change and a focus change will be part of that.. but it's way more popular than any of it's google predecessors were. The "What's hot" queue in G+ is one of my favorite places to learn about interesting new stuff and trends.
    • News to me

      I take a big interest in primates, and you can't find a single popular video on anthropoid intelligence where someone isn't making racist comments down below... G+ enabled commenting or not.
    • no it isn't

      I detest YouTube now. I wouldn't use it for $1000. Google can spy on someone else. I detest them for their nosey and intrusive attitude. Screw them. I've come very close to going back to an Apple phone solely because my Android phone aps are beyond comments of everyone except suck ups. Reduce trolling? You're kidding right? Have you read any YouTube reviews lately? Google is NOT going to invade my life and steal every bit of information they can about me. I don't use FaceBook either for the same reason. Computer companies, that once preached privacy, have become worse than Uncle Sam for sticking their nose where it doesn't belong. I use Google for as little as possible and Google + is a huge part of the reason why.
      • Google just called...

        They said that they'll be sad to see you go... :(
        Trolling Since Forever
    • Sorry perfomance sucks and I dont go there like I did before...

      True enough, but what if it is impossible to post period and no explanation as to why or how to fix? I am currently on hold trying to speak to someone at Google, I have been on hold for 3hrs 31min now. My email addresses don't work correctly and neither does Youtube, as a video player, problems playing favorites-wont load, or revert back to previous video-beyond the fact that I can only post arbitrarily. Maybe they have blocked me because I have sent scathing comments to them directly about privacy and hypocrisy as well as just plain ole' crappy service. Of course, I don't believe this is the actual reason my accts don't work. Bottomline I don't pay for anything, so we trolls and whatever other lovely labels you felt free to assign, we don't mean anything to Google. Don't defend incompetent business practices. Google makes money on ads, if we, the little people, don't end use Google crap, they have no ad base to market to perspective ad buyers.
      • Have you tried...

        Turning it off and on again?

        Seriously now, Try logging out and back in to your Google account. I'm wondering if your account may have been hacked.

        I don't know why anyone would actually call in.

        Perhaps you should simply cancel your use of Google's free services and move on. You seem to be a pretty angry person.

        ~Best wishes on having a better day.
        • I have to agree ^^

          Seriously, people are so butt hurt about the services they are getting for FREE! I doubt he even set up an account with Google.

          They should just go back to their @hotmail account, and watch videos on Yahoo!
          Trolling Since Forever
  • another one

    it seems the net is full of journalists who don't research, or would rather peddle their own agendas.

    seems here is another one.

    Google+ is doing very well. its only just 3 yrs old and has over 500m users. go check how many users FB had at the 3 yr point. or twitter. or even myspace.
    mini mansell