Google+, Google’s oft-debated and much maligned social network, turns a year old today.
It’s been a year of hits and misses for Google+, and whether there’s been more of the former or the latter depends on who you ask. Google itself has shown almost no waver in its commitment to propping up Google+, even in the face of numerous reports that the general public doesn’t share the company’s enthusiasm.
Let’s look back at Google+’s first year and examine how healthy the service is at one year old.
What Should We Call Google+?
The debate over Google+ begins with the phrase that I used to describe it in the opening sentence of this article: “social network.”
Although the general public has come to understand the concept of an online social network, Google insists on calling Google+ a “social layer” — it’s not just a destination site, it’s something that Google has added as a layer across many of its properties.
When reports point out the service’s relatively low usage — compared to the likes of Facebook or Twitter, usually — Google often says that the comparisons aren’t accurate because they don’t account for how users interact with Google+ on other Google properties — across the “layer,” if you will.
Just yesterday, at the Google I/O event, the company shared its first platform-specific measurement statistic when it revealed that “daily active” Google+ users spend about 12 minutes per day “in the stream” — i.e., on the plus.google.com domain.
But the rest of the statistics weren’t about Google+ itself, but about how users with Google+ accounts interact across Google.
This distinction over what Google+ is frames any debate over the service’s success, or lack thereof, to date.
Google+ First Year Hits
It seems pretty safe to say that Google Hangouts are the breakout hit of Google+’s first year. Business users, individuals and even The Muppets have taken a shine to the ease with which you can video chat with other Google+ users. Famous names that have used Hangouts include President Barack Obama, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Will.I.Am, David Beckham and many others. Heck, Google even has a help page for celebrities where Hangouts are the first feature mentioned.
Google+ Circles have also been a success overall. Circles allow users to be more selective when sharing content, and Google says one of the reasons that activity levels may appear low is that there’s so much private sharing going on via Circles. Less than two months after Google+ debuted, Facebook followed suit by offering improved sharing controls that closely mirrored Google+ Circles.
Google+ has a reputation of being most popular with users inside the tech community, but the company has also gone to great lengths lately to explain that other communities — like photographers and astronomers — are becoming regular Google+ users, too.
In May, Google hosted a two-day conference for its Google+ photographer community. One of the Google+ videos showed at Google I/O on Wednesday showed a “Virtual Star Party,” a regular Google+ event involving astronomers and astronomy enthusiasts.
Ripples & Analytics
It’s not a highly heralded feature, but many social marketers have come to appreciate Ripples, a feature that’s been expanded now to allow any user to see how Google+ posts have spread across the network.
Google also included Google+ when it launched its Social Data Hub — an analytics feature that helps users more clearly measure social activity.
This is a Google Search feature, but it relies on Google+ accounts to help Google form what’s becoming an “identity network.” Many publishers have adopted authorship markup, tying their Google+ profiles to content that they publish on third-party websites.
Google+ First Year Misses
Adoption & Google’s Reporting
There have been countless studies/surveys showing that Google+ usage is substantially lower than its competition. Perhaps the most damning of those was comScore’s report that Google+ users were only spending three minutes per month there — numbers that, as I mentioned above, Google refuted with its 12-minutes-per-day for “active users” statistic. Two popular game developers recently left Google+, one saying it wanted to focus on “higher-impact efforts.”
Google defends itself by rightly pointing out that Google+ is much younger and newer than its competition, and by saying that a lot of Google+ activity isn’t measured because it’s private.
Either way, there’s no denying that Google has been circumspect in how it shares statistics about Google+ usage — typically pointing out how much time Google+ account holders spend on all Google products. That doesn’t create trust in the possibility that Google+ has heavy adoption; as Danny Sullivan wrote, if Google’s proud of Google+, it should share real user data.
Although many brands on Google+ have seen increases in fans circling them on Google+, some of those brands have questioned if those users are real. This isn’t a problem that’s unique to Google+, of course.
Early on, Google+ also saw its share of comment spam on public posts but, to Google’s credit, it has taken steps to minimize that.
Brands or No Brands
Google+ stumbled early on in dealing with businesses. Perhaps the company wasn’t prepared for the heavy interest from businesses wanting to kick the tires on Google+ last summer, but whatever the reason, it was a mess.
When many businesses began using Google+ without anything to distinguish them from individual users, Google announced that brands weren’t allowed on the service. Google even went so far as to shut down several brand accounts, creating confusion and frustration while asking brands to wait for an official way to create a Google+ business presence.
Google+ & Google Apps Users
Google Apps users have been frustrated much longer than brands were. Although Google Apps users were finally able to use Google+ in late October 2011, Google is still in the process of migrating Apps users that were already using Google+ via personal Google accounts.
As Google admitted at the time, “it took more technical work than we expected to bring Google+ to Google Apps.” I’m not one of those Google Apps users, but judging from the Google+ posts and the tweets from friends who are, this has been a major “miss” for Google+.
Lack of APIs
Google has been very slow and deliberate in opening up Google+ APIs for third-party access. The company recently announced a partnership with Flipboard that involves an improved API, but Google+ is still far behind its competitors in this area.
Without full API availability, developers have been unable to create software/tools that would make it easier for users to engage with Google+. Any discussion of Google+ usage (or lack thereof) has to take this into account.
Google+: Looking Ahead
It seems safe to assume that ads will eventually make their way into Google+; a recent change to the user interface opens up some space where text ads could fit easily. Will users be turned off when that happens? Will advertisers be able to specifically target Google+?
Those are unknowns at this point. But there have been some stronger signals of what the future holds. Google seems poised to make what could be significant changes to Circles, thanks to its Katango purchase last year.
One thing is for certain as Google+ turns a year old: Google is as committed to the service as it’s ever been.
Google just moved its 80 million local business listings into Google+ and recently overhauled the whole user interface. At Google I/O yesterday, the company announced Google+ Events as the service’s latest feature. They’re clearly committed to Google+. (And don’t forget that last year’s employee bonuses were tied to Google+ progress/success.)
No matter how you look at it, it’s been an interesting year for Google+ — you may not agree with my specific lists of the Hits and Misses, but it’s clear the service has had some of both.
And, like any one-year-old, Google+ is clearly still feeling its way in the world around it.