“Online sharing is awkward. Even broken. And we aim to fix it.” With these words on June 28, 2011, Google introduced its most ambitious stab yet at breaking Facebook’s hold on social media: Google+. Yet a year later, it’s Google+ that needs fixing.
Google+ looks good on paper: The company claims it has in excess of 170 million users and compared to Facebook it’s a much cleaner experience. You can also do a lot of cool stuff on it, like set up an impromptu video chat with your friends and neatly divide your social relations into “Circles” that differentiate close friends from friends, friends from acquaintances, and so on.
But Google+ is no Facebook killer. When G+ launched, Facebook had about 700 million users. Now it has more than 900 million, meaning Facebook grew by more than G+’s total population over the past year. Moreover, Google+ is a ghost town: A well-circulated report from comScore in February showed users spent, on average, 3.3 minutes a month on the site in January vs. seven hours on Facebook. After that, comScore stopped releasing such time-spent metrics, but another researcher, RJ Metrics, found “active” users on G+ took an average of 12 days between each post and 30% of people who visit G+ post once and then never return again.
That sound you’re hearing right now is the clattering keyboards of hundreds of die hard G+ fans typing emails and comments, insisting that G+ is actually a thriving community. They are right. Among a select group, G+ is a Facebook replacement and many are on it all day. However, they are part of a rarefied subculture, the equivalent of Deadheads or Phish fans in a Rihanna world. For most, barring a few tech gadflies like Robert Scoble and Tom Anderson, Google+ is an afterthought; a third or fourth social network to keep track of that you can forget about for days or even weeks.
It didn’t have to be this way. When Google+ rolled out, there was a lot of good will. After a week or two, some people even decided that they were done with Facebook and would henceforth be Plussers. For such users, Google+ represented a clean break from the past. With a new social network, you could leave behind all those people you friended years ago and now wished you didn’t. G+ was America to Facebook’s Europe, a new Eden for serious social networkers.
But Google managed to thwart that benevolence with a few boneheaded moves. One was disallowing aliases (“No one is forcing you to use it,” sniffed Chairman Eric Schmidt. “It’s obvious for people at risk [of privacy intrusion] if they use their real names, they shouldn’t use G+.”) Another was taking its time to allow news organizations to publish on the platform. Finally, the coup de grace was an astounding four-month abeyance before allowing brands to set up profiles on G+.
Taken together, these decisions undercut G+’s unique selling proposition — as a less homey, more professional version of Facebook. In other words, a cross between Facebook and Twitter. But to make that happen, Google needed to embrace all the things that make Twitter interesting, including the fake parody accounts, marketing and, especially news, where G+’s ability to show a thumbnail for a story gave it a solid advantage over the picture-less Twitter.
It’s understandable why Google initially resisted adding aliases, news and brands — it wanted to make sure it had its ducks in a row before rolling out Google+ in earnest. But that was a mistake. By keeping potential mayhem to a minimum, Google made G+ boring. By barring marketers from the platform for so long, it alienated people who were initially excited about G+’s marketing possibilities, but, four months on, had growth skeptical and resentful.
You don’t get do-overs for this kind of thing. Google is now, as expected, frantically adding G+ to every conceivable Google product to try to entice more people on board. As Roland Smart, VP of marketing for Involver, a social media marketing firm, notes, Google has things ass-backwards: “They made these amazing apps and tried to get this social fabric to self-assemble between these products. I don’t think that’s the way people approach social relationships. I’m going to reach out to you because we both use Microsoft Word.”
The Microsoft comparison is apt, though Google suffers by the comparison. Just as Microsoft was caught flat-footed by the first web browser, Netscape, in 1994, Google’s business was disrupted by Facebook about a decade later. Microsoft reacted swiftly (if unethically) by rolling out its own browser, the much-unloved Internet Explorer, in 1995 and bundled it with Windows. In comparison, Google took about five years to counter the Facebook threat. It was late to the party and then bungled Google+’s introduction.
Now Facebook is having the last laugh. As for Google, instead of fixing online sharing, it has added a needless layer of complexity. A year on, Plus is a big minus.