Google+ isn't dead: It's just gone to a better place

Whether Google+ is dead or not is really all a matter of perspective. Unless, of course, Google pulls the plug.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Every day or so, I do my social networking rounds. I check in on my Twitter notifications. I read what people are up to on Facebook. I check on LinkedIn messages. I post to all three almost every day.

About once every three months or so, I remember Google+.

For some reason, I never really got much traction with Google+. One reason, I think, is that the automatic posting tools I use every morning weren't able to work with Google+. As I do my morning reading, I hit a button in my toolbar, and Buffer takes care of distributing my comments to Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

When Google+ first came out, I built some kind of weird SMS/Gmail/magic dust sort of hack that would also post to Google+, but one day it failed -- and I failed to notice.

For me, the social networks are all about interaction. Beyond the comments here on ZDNet, the way I get to talk to all of you -- and all those who follow me on the various networks -- is by responding to comments and posts on those networks.

For some, Google+definitely had traction. My buddy and ZDNet colleague Steven J. Vaughn-Nichols has a very strong presence on Google+. He talks a lot about Linux and open-source topics, and Google+ has tended to appeal to that audience.

But it never seemed to take off at a mainstream level.

It sure wasn't for not trying, though. When I bought my first Android phone and took a few pictures (thankfully of a local building and nothing more... sensitive) I was appalled that those pictures showed up on my Google+ feed. For a while, Google was all about the Google+.

But not so much anymore.

In fact, applications that used to be deeply, intimately tied to Google+ have now been cleaved away. Photos is the big example. It recently got a major overhaul and it's now its own thing, a separate beast from Google+. You're no longer required to have a Google+ identity to use Gmail. Hangouts are incredibly popular, but they are no longer attached at the hip to Google+. Some of Google+'s key managers left some time ago.

Unlike Facebook and Twitter, which have a generally upward momentum both in terms of numbers and in terms of public perception, Google+ has been in something of a limbo state for some time. Marketing Land, for example, has a piece entitled "Google Plus Is Small, But Still Not Dead Yet." Wired writes, "Google+ as We Knew It Is Dead, But Google Is Still a Social Network." Forbes asks, "Has Google+ Really Died?"

So what's the real story? Is Google+ dead?

To answer that question, we need to travel back in time to when Google+ first came on the scene. Because if Google+ is dead, it's because of Google's Google+ strategy back at that time.

Basically, Google+ was Google's Windows 8: an attempt to get unwilling users to jump onto a bandwagon by forcing them onto it, whether they wanted to be there or not.

If you wanted to use Hangouts or you wanted to use Gmail, you had to use Google+ and you had to be social. Pictures wound up on Google+ feeds. Even search results in Google itself were modified to showcase posts by circle members, rather than Google's historically powerful algorithm.

But not everyone wanted to be social on Google+. A lot of us just didn't want to manage yet another social network obligation. Others, like my 80-year-old mom, just wanted to read their email, and not worry about what might be public and what might be private.

Google made other mistakes, like forcing real names on users and blowing away Google accounts for those unwilling to be known by their real names. On the surface, this made some sense, but it wound up "outing" a lot of people who relied on privacy for personal protection. It was bad.

Google confused the need for people to do what they wanted to do with Google's goal of getting their enormous user base onto Google+ so Facebook didn't become, well, Facebook.

As is clear today, it didn't work

Fast forward back to today. Users want to be able to pick and choose their solutions, and many have chosen Facebook for social, Gmail for mail, and so forth. Like Microsoft with Windows 10, Google is beginning to recognize that forcing a behavior pattern onto the Internet doesn't work. Choice will win, and all a forced usage strategy will do is alienate a large batch of users.

That brings us back to the question of whether Google+ is toast. And the answer to that depends on what you (and Google) think Google+'s mission is. If you think Google+ is supposed to be a Facebook-killer, then Google+ is a total failure. It will not out-Facebook at what Facebook does so well.

But if you allow for the idea that Google has its own social network, it might be a little niche, and attract certain types of users, then Google+ is just fine. Of course, with that interpretation, there is always the question of whether Google itself will kill it.

Despite tremendous effort in the social networking arena, Google has not mastered that game. That one goes to Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Twitter. (Aside: when will we see Google make a play for Twitter?)

But if Google just wants to keep a nice, pleasant service up and running for those who love it (and there are many who do), then it's a win.

Whether Google+ is dead or not is really all a matter of perspective. Unless, of course, Google pulls the plug.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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