Yes, Google+ Is a Failure

Whatever Google and its acolytes may claim, the simple fact is that Google+ has failed. Don’t take my word for it: that’s the judgment of a former Google  developer and designer specializing in user interface, Chris Messina, whose lengthy critique of Google+ and its management went viral over the weekend. My super-reductive summary of Messina’s argument: Google+ set out to be a rival to Facebook, and measured by this lofty ambition, was pretty much a face plant.

Now I must duly note all the usual objections. First of all, Google+ isn’t a social network and indeed was never intended to be one -- or as Hugo Barra, Google's head of mobile product development averred somewhat mystically back in 2010, “We're not working on a social network platform that's just going to be another social network platform.” No, instead it is a “social layer” that connects all of Google’s various other products, I suppose rather like the layer of cherry syrup that nobody actually wants in a piece of Black Forest cake.



Okay, so it’s a social layer, not a social network: but does anyone use it? Of course when it comes to these sorts of questions Google is famously close-lipped, either saying they’re “very pleased” with its growth or citing statistics that are ambiguous at best. According to Google there are 1.15 billion registered users, but of these only about a third, 343 million, are “active monthly users,” and the average time spent on the network -- sorry, layer -- is just seven minutes per month.

Meanwhile other indicators aren’t good: Google social chief Vic Gundotra left the company in April of this year, and in September Google stopped requiring new users to create Google+ accounts, suggesting the search giant’s commitment to its social whatever may be wavering.

Anyhoo, Messina certainly has some strong opinions about Google+. First of all, whatever they said about being a layer on top of a platform, Google+ was indeed intended to take on Facebook, according to Messina, who believes that “the future of digital identity should not be determined by one company (namely, Facebook)… And Google still remains one of the few companies (besides Apple, perhaps) that stands a chance to take on Facebook in this arena--but Google+, as I see it, has lost its way.”

Messina is up front about the fact that good social applications ideally succeed by gathering lots of data about their users, which they use to create value in their lives with useful functions and features, while (hopefully) maintaining a very high degree of data security and user control. Indeed, Messina observes: “As it stands, Facebook, Apple, and Google (and to some degree Amazon) are in a battle to know you better than you do.”

This is where Google+’s failings became evident. A big part of its promise, to hear Messina tell it, was its potential to serve as a universal “backbone” for the Web, not just offering an alternative to Facebook’s “social graph” but also creating a “locus of control and access” for all your personal data, allowing you to review all the information relating to your online activity, delete it, or perhaps “[grant] access to some other trusted party of your choosing.” In short, Messina seems to call for a set of tools that empower users to control their online identities, rather than leaving them largely clueless, passive participants to be experimented on with ever-refined behavioral algorithms (like you-know-who -- this is my interpretation of his words, at least). Ultimately empowering users would encourage them to share more information, enabling ever more creative and useful social applications.

Instead, Messina notes, “most people would likely describe Google+ as a newsfeed, a kind of Facebook-lite. Sure, it’s got neat photo and video chat apps hanging off of it… But few it any would say that it’s where they go to understand the data that Google holds about them, or where they go to adjust their preferences, or to adjust how people see and find them online.” In short, “by launching a conventional social network, Google missed the pivotal opportunity to establish a data-positive paradigm for sharing, individual control, and personalization that set itself apart from Facebook. Ultimately it offered too little, too late.”

7 comments about "Yes, Google+ Is a Failure".
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  1. Ian Williams from Jericho, December 2, 2014 at 1:59 p.m.

    I wrote about this over three years ago and predicted it wouldn't work: You have hit the nail on the head. They have created a social media network that works for them, not their customers, which is why the customers do not use it.

    They said as much themselves - the concept of the layer that ties everything else together (rather than a social network) is for their benefit (understanding customers), not the customer's (keeping in contact with their friends).

    Massively incompetent. This is the 4th attempt at social networking from Google (Orkut, Buzz, Wave & G+) and they have all failed. When will they learn?

  2. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, December 2, 2014 at 2:05 p.m.

    I think their success in overcoming the first-mover advantage (Yahoo, IE, Mapquest) gave Google as sense of superiority. It's hard to come-from-behind and win every game.

  3. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, December 2, 2014 at 2:06 p.m.

    *a sense of superiority*

  4. Leonard Zachary from T___n__, December 2, 2014 at 3:06 p.m.

    Google+ is great to ignore.

  5. Adam Hartung from spark partners, December 2, 2014 at 6:42 p.m.

    On September 8, 2011 (over 3 YEARS ago) Forbes predicted Google+ would fail - and it would be an expensive loss for investors. Turns out that early call was very, very right!

  6. Ian Williams from Jericho, December 2, 2014 at 6:50 p.m.

    I made my call on September 22, 2011 - looks like we took the same view Adam!

  7. Ian Williams from Jericho, December 21, 2014 at 11:32 a.m.

    Congratulations on your earnings Aaron. I don't suppose that was anything to do with the success of Android was it?

    I'm glad you use G+ and agree that the functionality is far superior to that of FB, but the figures speak for themselves - fewer people are on G+ and spend far less time per user on there. The functionality is not the reason why G+ has been a comparative failure. Personally I think more people would have switched from FB had Google allowed cross posting between G+ and the other platforms (both ways, not just G+ out). Not particularly 'social'!

    All attempts at social media by Google (Orkut, Buzz, Wave & G+) have all been comparative failures - Google just don't seem to get 'social'. Think how much better your stocks would have performed had Google got G+ right.

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