What Killed Google+ And What Can Save It

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(This piece originally appeared on Forbes)

The demise of Google+ is a cautionary tale of rivalry, missed opportunity, and of course, drunk geeks waltzing. (…I’ll explain.)

As an active user of Google+ and casual clairvoyant of Google’s strategy, it’s no surprise that you’re almost as likely to be bodyboarding with Gisele Bündchen as reading this sentence on Google+.

While Google+ loyalists hunt for hope in Google’s lukewarm assurances, the company’s actions have been swift and deadly. Last week, the company parted ways with Vic Gundotra, a talented executive who led Google+ through a thick fog of expectations. The company is also reported to be reassigning team members and sub-products (possibly Hangouts) to other business units.  If Google+ were a Mel Gibson movie, it would end more like Apocalypto than Passion of the Christ.

Here’s my analysis of what went wrong, the one turning point that could have changed everything…and if there’s still hope of resurrection. Amen.

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1. Why? Who?

Building a great social network is like throwing an awesome party that never ends – or runs out of booze. Networks like Friendster and Myspace found themselves steeped in puke and plastic cups before the DJ arrived. Others like Path, Diaspora and Ping barely spell-checked their invitations.

From the outset, Google was determined to throw the best party ever. The nerdy internet librarian was about to lose the glasses and hair bun to party like it’s 00110001001110010011100100111001.

But why?

Around 2010-2011, Facebook looked like it was going to devour the world. It presented three distinct threats to Google:

  1. Facebook was leeching precious surfing time away from Google properties.
  2. It was collecting a lust-worthy set of data about interests, private lives, and relationships.  (Though I wrote at the time that Google’s data was still superior.)
  3. Social data and social recommendations looked like they’d become a critical part of search – an endorsement for almost anything on the web.

At the time, it would be hard to debate these conclusions. Google couldn’t afford to sit on the sidelines. It had to come out dancing.

2. Tabla Rasa

When Google+ launched in 2011, it was a blank slate…oddly enough, not that different from the first iPad – an actual blanc slate.

The first iPad had almost no apps and few obvious uses. Plus, only MC Hammer could fit one in a pocket. But the device was so elegant and dripping with possibilities, hoards of developers and curious consumers coughed up a month’s rent (in Arizona) to buy one.

The sheer will and imagination of this ecosystem defined the product. But it already had a precedent: the iPhone. So managing developers and selling apps were just extensions of the iPhone business.

Not so for Google+. The whole undertaking was completely new to both Google and its early users. It was like two virgins making love. Everything was kind of exciting and very awkward.

Unlike the iPad, there was no ecosystem. Early “Plussers” couldn’t build on the platform. There was no API. They had no choice but to rely entirely on Google’s vision and internal developers.  Unfortunately, that vision was to become Facebook… Corporate objectives mandated it. Bonuses were tied to it. There would be no eel sushi in the cafeteria until Google+ filleted Facebook!

3. Fanboys & Fotos

If you build it, they will come.

They” never came.

  • Friends and family stayed on Facebook
  • Business contacts stayed on LinkedIn
  • Celebrities stayed on Twitter
  • Women stayed on Pinterest
  • Kylie Jenner and Kodachrome hipsters stayed on Instagram

I first joined G+ to promote my writing on an undiscovered plot of internet. I also believed They would come. When They didn’t, I started using the platform more like TV – dipping in for occasional chats with some of the smartest people on the net.

Sure, many tried it. But most lasted for a post or two.

So who actually stayed?

  • Science buffs and tech geeks, like me.
  • Photographers
  • Google groupies…lots and lots of Goopies.
  • Social media buffs…and Google+ ‘experts’
  • Philosophers, libertarians, and something called “Unitarians”…I think it has something to do with unicorns or eating vegetables.
  • A smattering of Europeans
  • Anarchists and refugees from Reddit
  • Vaguely employed geniuses
  • Combative trolls with Guy Fawkes avatars
  • Men. 70% from the last estimate I saw. And far less Abercrombie & Fitch than Propecia & Rogaine.

Stepping back, it looked a bit like a dive bar on Tatooine – a hodgepodge of characters from every solar system. These were the loyalists, the believers.

4. Force Feeding Facebook – The Turning Point

Each of these niches wanted something else. One thing none of them wanted is Facebook.

But Bizarro Facebook is what they got:

  • Birthday announcements for total strangers
  • Events so far away, burrowing through the earth would be a shortcut
  • Video chatting with strangers
  • Automatic personal photo uploads on Android…to the least personal social network.
  • Clogging your phone by syncing contact info from random G+ Unitarians you followed

Google was in denial. Or, in a universe of its own creation. These were fun, friendly features for guys who rant about Obamacare.

Happy Birthday, Tomiko SEO Warlock!!!

This was the moment to come to terms with what the network really was. It wasn’t a Facebook competitor at all. Sure, the features were. But what Google actually built was a fancier Reddit – a place to have interesting discussions with strangers, but with less anonymity, trolling, and nudity.

This was Google’s chance to listen to actual users and build for their needs, not the masses who weren’t coming. Help them discover people and topics they’re passionate about.

Most importantly, open the platform to outside developers. Create API’s. Allow open sharing to other networks. Let the user community guide Google+’s evolution. They could have built a powerful ecosystem like Google’s own Android – or the one that built Twitter (before Twitter euthanized it).

It was clear the crowd wanted to waltz to Tchaikovsky, but Google pumped up the Jay-Z and poured more Captain Morgan.

5. Googenstein

Then things got surreal.

Google hastily re-routed all its services through Google+. It was like a Mexican tour bus that stops at an empty gift shop on the way to Tulum.  The tourists wanted restrooms and Kit Kats, but instead walked out with ponchos and sombreros.

Google+ everywhere!!

  • It was bolted onto YouTube to replace that network’s incoherent, prepubescent comments
  • Every Google site featured bright red notifications that few understood
  • Gmail was afflicted with Google+ comments
  • Using Hangouts with business pages was only slightly easier than diffusing an Iranian missile. Twice, I almost lost lucrative deals trying to walk exasperated executives through a Hangout configuration.
  • Search results became linked to Google+ authorship. Want to show up higher? You better start debating the new Android firmware on Google+!
  • Google+ added business pages, local pages and corporate features, but the businesses never came. I’ve asked Google+ activists for success stories, but have yet to see any huge successes with real dollars. (Let me know if they exist.)
  • Twitter-style suggested user lists recommended random strangers or celebrities who had no idea Google+ existed.  Personally, I’m holding out for Tupac and Biggie.
  • Contrary to the openness Google selectively embraces, there were no exits in this casino. No sharing from the G+ app to any other network. No more emailing yourself Map directions, it’s G+ or die!

To new users, Google+ looked like calculus. It was like trying to board a train at 40 miles per hour.

Several power users even created entire video series on how to use G+.

Guy Kawasaki released a 208 page book about it. You should be able to build your own Honda Accord in 196 pages.

6. Rock Bottom

The unsavory part was the inflated “active” user and follower counts. It felt disingenuous, like all those smiling faces at a Kim Jung Un parade. But there was no hiding from the truth:

  • Popular articles all over the web had tens of thousands of Tweets and Likes, but a pittance of Google+ shares. You’d never know it from beautiful, colorful growth charts.
  • Top users like Peter McDermott, with hundreds of thousands of followers, were barely getting .2% interaction on their posts. Or was it .02%…? They realized it was time to build their brand elsewhere, on the open web.
  • Few friends, family or associates ever materialized.
  • One of the few web celebs to use the network, Robert Scoble, abandoned Google+ for Facebook.

What Next?

I wouldn’t be surprised if Google’s internal cycle matched mine, but with actual hard data. As a user, I quickly moved from love affair to constructive criticism to missed opportunity and ultimately, disillusionment.

In the end, it was a network without purpose. To most people, interacting with strangers around common interests ranks somewhere between ironing socks and learning Hungarian.

Google+ will continue for a while, but it’ll likely end up in neglect and disrepair like Blogger, Reader, and every bridge in America.

Parts of the platform will live on in various Google services. Hangouts could be a killer app, freed of its G+ prison.

Still, I can’t help but regret all the wasted potential. With a core of smart, dedicated evangelists, Google+ could have been so much more. But not inside Google. Google’s scale demands home runs to make the slightest dent. Google+ was, at its best, an infield single. Not good enough. Not big enough.

That’s why I think the company should open source the code and seed it with cash and several developers. Give it the freedom that loyal power users deserve. It could become the next Mozilla (Firefox). And Google can still benefit from the data it generates.

Google is a great company. It’s smarter and more interesting than most. It never wallows. It learns lessons quickly and moves on to the next big thing. So should we.

You can see the company already adapting. Instead of releasing all-consuming Franken-apps, the latest Google Doc and spreadsheet apps are standalone uni-taskers, as mobile apps should be.


This article is part of my inadvertent (I swear!) series of articles about Google. If you enjoyed it, check out:

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