Google Plus is turning negative, but don't bet on it going away

Vic Gundotra's resignation has cast doubt on the future of Google Plus, the social networking site he launched in 2011. But despite forecasts of doom, the survival of Orkut suggests Google won't close it down.
Written by Jack Schofield, Contributor
Vic Gundotra's Google Plus account

Following Vic Gundotra's resignation as Google's senior vice president of social, the TechCrunch website claimed -- and Google denied -- that Google+ Is Walking Dead. Gundotra was responsible for launching G+ in 2011, but it remains to be seen whether his departure will change anything. After all, Google first entered the social networking market with Orkut at almost exactly the same time as Facebook. While Orkut's early success was followed by a decline into irrelevance, Google still hasn't closed the service*. Unlike G+, Orkut really is an example of the "walking dead".

But there are certainly reasons for concern. Gundotra spent most of his career at Microsoft (15 years from 1991) and there's no obvious reason why he should quit Google after only seven years… or not if G+ was doing well. (If he's been headhunted to run a rival company, that would be different.) There's also the fact that G+ will now be run by David Besbris, who is currently Google's VP of engineering, not some hot-shot hired from Facebook. Whatever Besbris's merits, which are no doubt many, this sends out the message that G+ is now an engineering management problem rather than a social networking challenge.

Google co-founder Larry Page wrote on G+ that "Vic built Google+ from nothing. There are few people with the courage and ability to start something like that". However, he may have been the wrong man at the wrong time. All Gundotra's moves came straight out of the old -- very old -- Microsoft playbook.

Gundotra's G+ started out as a slow, bloated website, it attempted to gain users by compulsion -- locking G+ to YouTube comments, Gmail and other Google properties -- and it tried to enforce the use of real names. (Yes, amusingly enough, Vic's real name is Vivek.) All of these were unpopular with many users, and according to another TechCrunch post, some Googlers. Danny Crichton, a former Google intern, writes that "Due to this integration, much of it forced, the culture around social at Google had become deeply poisonous by the time I had started. I still remember talking to a member of the Picasa team who told me to 'f*** off' when I asked about integrating Google+ into the product. He was hardly the only one, as any number of company-wide emails from engineers could attest."

Facebook, the world's most successful social network, is now heading in the opposite direction by targeting mobile users with smaller, separate apps. Of course, some of these have been bought in, such as Instagram and WhatsApp, but the normally-acquisitive Google failed to buy them. With trendy apps such as Secret providing anonymity, it won't be a surprise if Facebook provides that feature, too.

As for the timing, that was in part enforced by earlier Google failures such as Orkut, Wave and Buzz. However, G+ arrived when more users were starting to worry about their privacy and about being tracked online. And it was patently obvious that G+'s main purpose was to increase the amount of personal, identifiable information it held on everybody. Perhaps Google was worried because it didn't have the vast stores of personal data that users freely provide to Facebook. However, Google was already running the web's biggest tracking system, so making it even bigger was unlikely to have much appeal.

Sensible users already spread their data around so that they have some control over what appears where and in what context: Facebook for friends and family, LinkedIn for business contacts, Flickr or 500px for photos, YouTube or Vimeo for videos, Dropbox for sharing files, OneDrive (SkyDrive) or Office 365 for office documents, Reddit for chitchat, and so on. Trying to yoke them all together through G+ created all sorts of opportunities for disaster, ranging from inappropriate YouTube comments to the inadvertent sharing of personal photos and confidential business information. (See Violet Blue's 'Google outed me' for even more unpleasant consequences.)

Putting all your eggs in one basket is as risky today as it was when IBM or Microsoft dominated IT. Google isn't significantly different from either of those, unless you count having even more grandiose plans for taking over the world (Google Glass, self-driving cars, robots etc).

One of the problems with G+ is that it's almost impossible to know how well it is succeeding, or how badly it's failing. If you make a YouTube comment, respond via a Gmail email, use a Hangout or merely click a +1 button, are you really using G+? (There's no reason why Hangouts should be bundled in with G+.) It's far from being a ghost town, but it's nowhere near Facebook's "1.28 billion monthly active users as of March 31, 2014", with 76 percent checking in at least once per day.

Insofar as G+ has a reason to exist, it's an "anti-Facebook". But this doesn't represent much of a market outside the USA in general, and Silicon Valley in particular. For whatever reason, G+ has also attracted a somewhat toxic user base, with levels of abuse more typical of web comments than genuinely social sites. This also limits its appeal as a sort of long-form version of Twitter, though G+'s interface is too slow and clunky to provide serious competition.

As for competing with Facebook as a social network, that was never a likely prospect. Your friends and family are already on Facebook and they're not on G+, and even if you get the odd one to join, they probably won't use it. (Yes, I have tried.) Like it or not, Facebook has more global reach than Google Search or Gmail, Amazon, eBay or Wikipedia. It's not going away in a hurry.

G+ might have done better if it hadn't been delusional about replacing Facebook, and aimed at providing something that users -- rather than Google -- actually needed. What that might be is probably as much of a mystery to Vic Gundotra as it is to me.

* Footnote: If you are logged in to a Google account and visit Orkut, Google apparently creates an Orkut account for you, without asking. Further, "if you also have a Google+ account, Google will take the data from it (your name and avatar) to auto-populate your new Orkut account," according to Matt McGee, Editor-In-Chief of Marketing Land. What sort of company does that kind of thing?

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