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

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....
Written by Jack Schofield, Contributor

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.



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