If you know me professionally, you’re probably also familiar with my longstanding disdain for Google+. When it was unveiled four years ago, I was immediately skeptical. There were various features, like Hangouts, that seemed to have some value from a social perspective, but most of Google+’s existence appeared to be a thinly-veiled attempt to collect and consolidate even more personal data about Google users that would feed the company’s advertising end-game.
Perhaps even more frustrating was how many PR clients (from a past, pre-TDL life) latched onto an unproven Google+ like it was the best thing since sliced bread, and required that it be written into every comms plan. Before there was any proof of value, comms teams were scrambling to figure out how to navigate it, leverage it and dominate it. When it came down to brass tacks, though, even the brands dominating Google+ were dominating something hollow, even if Robert Scoble adored it. A huge user base was comically inflated by the fact that everyone who had Gmail by default also had Google+. Engagement numbers, in most instances, were incredibly low. ROI was a joke. Including Google+ in strategic social media plans felt like a waste of time.
So yes, I felt vindicated when late last year (on my birthday, in fact) Chris Messina, a former UX designer at Google, posted “I f*cked up. So has Google,” on Medium in reference to Google+. It’s still a fantastic read overall, delving into the concept of digital identity, who controls it, how it relates to mobile, privacy concerns and Google’s innovation (or lack thereof). Messina writes:
“Lately, I just feel like Google+ is confused and adrift at sea. It’s so far behind, how can it possibly catch up?… I’m disappointed because I expect better from Google…To this day, I still don’t know what Google+ is for, let alone better at than Facebook.”
My thoughts exactly, for years. Luckily, clients eventually stopped caring and forcing strategy for a social network that consumers themselves were being force-fed. Well, this past week Google published an official blog post concluding, “While we got certain things right, we made a few choices that, in hindsight, we’ve needed to rethink.” Understatement of the social media era.
In the same post, they say they’ll be making significant changes over the next few months, including spinning certain features off into tangential apps and separating Google+ logins from the account that allows access to Google properties like Gmail, YouTube and others. Re/code’s Peter Kafka makes some succinct, important points about why the latter change matters. To be clear (because many media outlets are misreporting the news), Google is not killing off Google+. It’s reinventing it.
From our marketing perspective, the latter change is noteworthy because it will finally give us a more accurate, informed view into what the Google+ audience actually looks like, in terms of volume, truly active users and demographics. Ultimately, none of that will matter if no one appreciates the alterations and starts using the network. But if Google+ pulls off a minor miracle and somehow differentiates itself as far as utility and the suggestions Messina made, they’re already giving themselves a much better chance of recapturing brands’ attention and investment.
It’s always an awkward, hesitant moment to call a “moonshot” from a massive and largely innovative company dead in the water, especially when the product has done so little to push the envelope, but Google+ may still have some last gasps left. I’m not sure I’d agree that it’s been a “slow death” to this point (it was always a steep dive in my books), but I’m also not 100 percent convinced Google+ is dead and that “mourning” is in order. Casey Newton of The Verge has some interesting thoughts on how Google+ could still exist and actually matter, if it’s simplified and appropriately fills a market need or desire. If anyone has the resources and motivation to turn it around at the last possible opportunity, it’s Google. We’ll see if they deliver.