Last week’s announcement that Google+ founding father Vic Gundotra has left Google opened the door to a rash of speculation about the future of Google’s biggest venture into social media.
The idea that Google+ might be dying started with a TechCrunch post that included statements from a few anonymous sources declaring Google+ to be “walking dead” at Google:
We’ve heard [...] that Google+ is not “officially” dead, more like walking dead: “When you fire the top dog and take away all resources, it is what it is.”
In other words, supposedly Google had decided that Google+ was a failed experiment that needed to be put on “life support only/do not resuscitate” status. That post was cited by many others in the tech press as proof that Google+ is scheduled for a date with the Google morgue.
It is my opinion that such conclusions are not only premature and unwarranted, but actually make no sense. That is, they make no sense to anyone who really understands what Google+ is within the Googlesphere. However, that doesn’t mean that Google+ won’t be in for some serious changes in the coming months.
In this post, I will make four assertions about the future of Google+. I don’t mean any of these assertions to be absolutes, or even “predictions.” Like all of us on the outside of the few offices clustered around Larry Page’s in Mountain View, I see through a glass dimly. But I base these on my long experience of observing both Google and Google+.
Here’s what I will assert, followed by a more in-depth reason for each assertion:
- Google+ the social network and user data infrastructure of Google is not going away.
- However, Google+ the brand may change significantly (or even disappear).
- That change may be driven by the realization that the future for big online advertising companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google is not so much in social engagement on one mega-network as it is in user data acquisition.
Assertion 1: Google+ Is Not Going Away
If I would hang my hat and put down money on anything in this post, it’s that Google has no intentions whatsoever of killing Google+. For one thing, we have strong statements from Google+ Chief Architect Yonatan Zunger that the TechCrunch article alleging the coming death of G+ was “utter bollocks” and that the supposed reassignment of G+ staff to other projects was nothing more than a logistical moving of staff to a larger building for space reasons.
In his own statement about Gundotra’s departure, Google CEO Larry Page concluded that the company would “continue working hard to build great new experiences for the ever increasing number of Google+ fans.” Other Google employees chimed in on Google+ threads to add their affirmations that Google+ wasn’t going anywhere.
It’s nice to have those statements from top people at Google, but (understandably) you might be hesitant to take their word for it. I don’t think you have to. There are more fundamental reasons why I think Google is far from done with Google+.
It just doesn’t make sense that Google would now dismantle Google+. Google+ isn’t an added-on product with an off switch you can flip in a moment. It is now truly baked in to the very infrastructure of almost all of Google’s online products and services.
Some have noted that Google has in the past killed products without sentimentality. That is true, but turning off something like Google Reader was like removing a sock. Dismantling Google+ would be more like ripping out a person’s central nervous system.
Furthermore, because of that intensive integration into nearly all of Google, Google+ performs a number of valuable functions for Google, even apart from the social network that is its most visible component. (Much more about that in my third assertion.)
So, I don’t think Google+ is going anywhere, But….
Assertion 2: The Google+ Name May Be Deemphasized
I do think it quite plausible that we will, in the not-distant future, see a growing de-emphasis of the Google+ brand. Indeed, a possible hint of that came out just this week when The Verge noticed that Google is testing a version of their Sign In button for websites that says just “Sign in with Google” instead of “Sign in with Google+.”
Whether by bad luck or mishandling, or some combination of the two, the Google+ brand has never gained positive traction in public perception. Almost three years in, those of us who are advocates of the platform find ourselves still almost daily having to defend it from ridicule. That’s not a good position for any brand name.
However unfairly, the Google+ name has become almost indelibly linked by non-users with “fail,” “ghost town” and something that Google pushes unwanted on users of its other products. After three years, it may be time to admit that the opportunity to overcome that perception has been missed.
It may be that the social network continues to be known as Google+, but we stop hearing “Google+ is Google” type statements from Google. Perhaps, as Danny Sullivan speculated, user accounts may return to being just Google accounts. We might see the cessation of Google nagging (or in some cases, forcing) everyone to “sign up for Google+” in order to use other Google products.
The fact remains though, that Google could do all of that without killing the Google+ social network, and certainly without killing the other functions Google+ performs, which would be foolish.
So, conclusion to Assertion 2: Google+ is not going away, but the Google+ brand and how it is used by Google may change significantly.
Assertion 3: The Future Is NOT In Mega Social Network Platforms
Much of what I’m going to say here is building on an article by Mike Elgan titled “Why the Social Networks Are Falling Apart,” which you should read if you want to understand where all this is going now.
Mike’s article is quite cleverly titled. By “falling apart” he doesn’t at all mean that the major social networks are dying. Rather he’s commenting on their increasing move toward spinning off into developed or acquired apps that allow users to engage with one popular aspect of a network without having to get into all the other baggage that comes with the network as a whole.
An example of this would be the acquisitions of Instagram by Facebook and Vine by Twitter. Many pundits have been surprised that these apps haven’t yet been absorbed into their owner’s social networks.
But Elgan isn’t surprised at all. He says keeping these apps independent is a recognition by the Big Guys in social networking that an increasing number of users are shifting in two directions that actually complement each other: mobile and hyper-specific. (Note foursquare’s announcement yesterday that it’s splitting its functionality into two apps — including the newly-developed Swarm.)
Facebook was first to see this. Over the past two years, their users have shifted overwhelmingly to mobile. That created a real crisis for Facebook. Facebook has been entirely revenue-dependent on advertising inside their own platform, and mobile is notoriously advertising-averse.
At the same time, Facebook’s revenue model is perhaps even more threatened by another trend: the increasing move of users toward smaller, hyper-niche networks. Many users, and especially the younger set who are the future, seem to be increasingly wary of the “wide open” nature of big social networks. They just want to chat with their close friends, but the big networks tend to make conversations too open, pulling in all sorts of people they don’t necessarily want to interact with.
The first response of these networks was to offer audience segmentation options, such as Circles in Google+ or Friends Lists on Facebook.
The problem with such segmentation options, though, is that very few users ever use them. It’s just too much work to create all those circles or lists.
Furthermore, doing that doesn’t actually match up with the way we engage with people in the real world. Joe may be a co-worker, but he also may be a close friend. However, he may not be someone I want to talk politics with. In the terms of Facebook relationships statuses, “it’s complicated.”
So users are turning to micro-network apps such as Instagram, SnapChat, and WhatsApp for two reasons: they are entirely mobile, which is where more and more users spend most of their online time; and, they can easily be set up to engage one tight circle of friends.
Just this week at the F8 event, Facebook made several announcements moving in the many-apps and hyper-niche direction.
But how does acquiring or building these micro-network apps help the bottom lines of the mega social networks?
Elgan gives the answer in his article. It’s a realization that the real value of social networks to big companies like Facebook or Google isn’t in user engagement (not discounting that that is valuable), but in data acquisition.
To put it bluntly, those micro-networks become rich sources of user data acquisition that can be used to better target advertising in places other than the social network itself.
(In keeping with that, at the F8 event, Facebook also announced FAN, a mobile ad network that extends outside the Facebook platform.)
That leads me to my fourth and final assertion.
Assertion 4: Even If Google+ The Brand Has Failed, Google+ The Platform Has Been An Amazing Success
I don’t doubt that Google really wanted Google+ to succeed as a true social network. I certainly think that was Vic Gundotra’s dream. As much as some like to say, “Don’t look at G+ as a Facebook killer,” do we really doubt for a moment that Google wouldn’t have loved if it were?
Look at the first year ad campaigns for Google+ (see an example below). They basically came across as, “Hey, look, you can do everything on G+ that you do on Facebook, but with better privacy (Circles)!” Obviously, that wasn’t a big enough disruption for most people to make the shift.
Even if they believed that Google+ was better designed and really did make privacy more up front than Facebook, the Facebook momentum was too much to overcome. Many of us G+ evangelists made fun of the “but my friends aren’t on G+” mentality, but it honestly carried tremendous weight.
So why am I asserting that Google+ the project has been a resounding success? Because even if it never becomes a household-word social network, Google+ instigated a radical restructuring of Google that makes Google much better positioned for the future, in light of what we discussed above.
One Google To Rule Them All
But in January 2012, Google made all users “re up” their privacy agreements. Now, users would agree to one overarching agreement, based on their Google+ profile, that would cover and unify all Google services.
For the user, that provided increased convenience. She could now sign in to Google once and then seamlessly use all Google services. Not only did she not have to log in and out again, but also her profile carried over into all services, making them more useful.
From Google’s side, the advantages were enormous. Within Google itself, users were incentivized to remain logged in, thus allowing Google to better collect and collate user data and behavior between services.
But that’s not all. The convenience of using Google logged in, combined with increasing opportunities to use websites and apps through a Google login, meant that more and more people were on the web logged in to Google all the time. And that made it much easier for Google to collect even more user data.
The unified privacy agreement also paved the way for “Search Plus Your World” personalized search. With more user data, and more people staying signed in to Google all day long, search could become much more personalized. In theory, this leads to better search results for the individual. That means a happier user who will use Google more, and thus be more exposed to Google ads.
But what else does Google do with all that data? The primary revenue-centered use is for targeting advertising. The more Google knows about your personal information, your preferences, your online behaviors, your location, etc., the more accurately they can serve up ads targeted to you, specifically.
And that’s where Google has a distinct advantage over Facebook and Twitter: the Google Ad Network. Not only can Google show hyper-targeted ads in Google properties like Search and YouTube, but Google also owns and runs the largest online advertising network in the world, with millions of sites displaying Google AdSense ads. As noted above, Facebook is beginning to build its own ad network, but it is starting from way behind.
So, Google+ became the catalyst not only to finally unify Google, but also to get a much larger amount of user accounts, while incentivizing users to log in to those accounts, thus providing user data that generates more ad revenue for Google.
From Social Network To User Data Service
For the past week, I’ve been face palming over my lack of foresight to understand a major clue about the future I’m proposing here — a clue that was staring me in the face for at least the past six months.
Here it is. Up until some time last year, when you would hear an official Google+ spokesperson speaking at a conference, he or she would speak about the advantages of Google+ the social platform for brands. You’d hear about how well you can engage your audience, and the glories of Hangouts for brand building and customer retention, etc. That all changed about six months ago.
More recently, all Google+ spokespeople seem to speak off the same talking points sheet, and it’s all about Google+ Sign In for webmasters and developers.
At the time, I railed about that. I thought “once again, Google marketing missing the point.” I was frustrated that they were failing to teach businesses what I had been teaching for two years: the incredible reach a brand could get by being active on the G+ social platform, particularly due to its influence into Search.
What I missed was that the shift in the conference talks was probably signaling the change in emphasis I’m talking about today. That is, Google was already strategically moving from pushing Google+ the social engagement platform to promoting Google+ the one-stop data miner for webmasters and app developers in relation to their users.
When webmasters/developers incorporate G+ Sign In, it’s a win-win for both them and Google. Both get access to — and the ability to manipulate — much deeper levels of user data and behavior. As I indicated above, I wouldn’t be surprised if in the coming months we see the G+ branding dropped from things like Sign In, as they may already be testing. But they could do that without dismantling anything they’ve already built with Google+.
Conclusion: Whither Goest Google+?
I’ve argued here that not only is Google itself maintaining they have no plans to dismantle or kill Google+, to do so makes no sense for them. However, a change or de-emphasis of the Google+ brand could benefit Google while doing no harm to the overall Google brand.
In this scenario, Google gets to have their cake and eat it too. They don’t lose face by killing a project that once was so big it is rumored that all Google employee bonuses hinged on it. At the same time, they continue to reap that project’s benefits while losing the weight its brand has become around their necks.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.