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

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

Summary: 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.

TOPICS: Telcos

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.


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.

Topic: Telcos

David Meyer

About David Meyer

David Meyer is a freelance technology journalist. He fell into journalism when he realised his musical career wouldn't pay the bills. David's main focus is on communications, as well as internet technologies, regulation and mobile devices.

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  • It's true. I've been using Pinterest lately more than I do G+, and I don't use Pinterest that much. It wouldn't take _much_ to get me checking G+ -- one good idea, and the framework's already there - but social networks are like pubs. You have your regular, and the rest are nowhere near.
  • Interesting article.
    And the question I always wanted to ask is: Why would Google want to be in the mainstream social network business ? Because it's hot?
    Kids don't give a damn about Google+.
    Make the test, show it to your kids and they will stare back at you in disbelief, wondering how you can be so out of touch with reality.

    Google+ could focus on professional needs instead, carving its own niche nicely.
    But Larry Page choose to chase the FB hare. Blind pride ? Greed ? Ego trip ?

    They were quite a few services I liked which Google set up or bought, like Picnik, the online image editor which was coherently integrated with Picasa. They killed quite a few, big mistake. Now you have to be on Google+ to get more or less the same functionalities. They call it "better integration".
    To me it sounds like "from now on you gotta use this car in order to make coffee so that we can count you as a new car owner when you're in for a cup of fresh black java".
    Ridiculous. Offensive, too. I don't want to be force-fed with unrelated "integrated features".
    Nobody wants that.

    Yet they seem to believe at Google that it's going to work, somehow.
    Did they forget about what the Internet is all about? Freedom of choice.
    I can choose to have a FB account but, somehow, G+ is being force-fed upon us.
    There is no room left for my own desires. It's intrusive. Unwanted. Like Google Buzz - who remembers Buzz ?
    (I think Buzz was in essence smarter than Google+ but suffered from a very arrogant launch which killed it).

    Wise up, Google, & bring us back Eric Schmidt!
  • TV ads? Really? Snigger. I mean even IE is using Tumblr because that's where the cool kids are. (I expect Microsoft to be using Pinterest to market Windows Phone any time now). Google has to tap social because that's where personal content is going and Google can't sell you ads if it can't mine your personal content for relevance and everyone elses personal content for the semantics that lets it create relevance, but Google+ is a third strikeout. I think the Android/patent abuse by Motorola/search regulation/privacy regulation issues are a lot more interesting, but social hits Google where it needs to live.
    Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe
  • Google+ is a big disappointment. I have invested a lot in Google services and wanted it to work. But nothing happened. And when I realised that Google+ had downgraded Picasa albums and Google Groups the only option was to opt out. If Larry Page is responsible for these changes and the cessation of Google labs he should be kicked out.
  • I find it amusing that Google is almost harming the wonderful search experience that made it the automatic choice way back when (my discovery of Google and my realisation that the internet was full of wonderful things only a click away were rather linked), purely to sell us some ads.

    Because Google's ads are laughable.

    All Google seems to know about me is that I do archery and that I'm looking for a new car. Actually, not even that - I get a scarily targeted Honda ad which would discourage me from buying even if I hadn't been underwhelmed by the car; and an ad for an archery shop in the US. I live near London. Google knows this because I've actively tried to help it out, just to see what would happen.

    I suspect that a subscription model may be next - internet advertising isn't working.
  • I love all these people declaring the death of Google+ based on the fact that none of their friends are on Google+. There is a massive thriving photography community on Google+, I've learned more about photography in a week via G+ than I ever did from magazines or other social networks.
  • Google isn't about to die, but it is doing some curious things from my personal perspective.

    On the plus side:
    - the search engine is still good, though making some strange personalised rankings.
    - Google translate is phenomenal for a free service, and works on spreadsheets and other documents as well as web pages (now why hasn't Google pushed that more?). I'm using it in the office to get a reasonable idea what documents in Hebrew and other languages are about
    - Android is pretty good - (though occasionally oses connectivity without warning you until you think it's a long time since you received a call or SMS!)
    - Google Sky is a wonderful free app. This week I learned to identify Leo, as well as confirming identity of several planets.
    - Google Maps and directions are getting better all the time, on PC or phone. I saw yesterday the estimated journey time (on PC maps-directions) shows impact of current traffic conditions. Pity it doesn't allow you to state planned journey date and time to recommend route based on average conditions for those parameters (like avoiding rush hour bottlenecks). And when you print directions, you can add maps and streetview to each step. We get a lot for free.
    - I am now using Google Reader as my feed consolidator. Better than my previous choices (like IE, and MY Yahoo, and does the job well, without frills.
    - You can get a sense of the data Google holds on you through the dashboard
    To summarise the plus points, Google has given us a lot of great free apps, which continue to improve.

    On the downside:
    - anyone checking Google dashboard must get a twinge of anxiety, and I fully understand David's concerns and consequent actions, like using multiple accounts. We like being in control, not being watched over and manipulated, including having our movements tracked via our mobile/cell phones
    - I don't see any need to use Google+. I looked at it and no interest. I don't use much social networking other than Twitter these days though. And LinkedIn and Flickr if you count those. I deliberately use Flickr and not any Google photo-sharing site because Google has enough of my data under its control already
    - the innovation seems to be dying down
  • 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".

    They won't fly as well, surely!
  • Local

    Google need to concentrate on driving Local - it can add significant value by supporting Google's core offering to users - search. BUT it must not become just another Yelp in the same way as G+ is seen as 'just another Facebook'. Google need to focus on adding real value to reviews, and that means credibility with a big 'C' - no shilling, real reviews from real people.

    Then dovetail that with G+ and they will have a meaningful offering.
    Robin Bruce