Rumors are that Google might be planning to kill Google+ or at least put it into a Walking Dead-like “zombie” mode, as TechCrunch characterizes it — and something Google denies. There are some good reasons for Google to do this, and potentially, it could allow Google to better fight on the new social battlefield, that of single-purpose social apps. Let’s play out the scenario to imagine what might happen.
The Rumor: Killing Google+
For the essential background, be sure to read Google+ Is Walking Dead from TechCrunch, which describes a move to drop Google+ as a product but keep the platform side still going:
What we’re hearing from multiple sources is that Google+ will no longer be considered a product, but a platform — essentially ending its competition with other social networks like Facebook and Twitter
The TechCrunch article goes into depth about the idea of ending forced integrations of Google+ into things like Gmail or YouTube and how teams of Google+ people on Hangouts or photos are being shuffled over to Android.
TechCrunch cites anonymous sources for that, and the Financial Times also cites another anonymous source with the same overall view:
One person familiar with Google said the company planned to refocus its social media efforts soon. Its Hangouts messaging and video-chat app will be given greater prominence, alongside photos, while the Google+ branding may take a back seat, this person said.
The Wall Street Journal also has somewhat similar speculation, noting the movement of employees further from the main cluster of buildings at the Google headquarters as perhaps a sign of less commitment to Google+. However, the WSJ also notes people saying employee moves are common. And I know personally that Google+ was already outside the main cluster from its origins.
Postscript: After I shared this on Google+, it’s interesting that commenter Curtis Jacob said he’d recently been surveyed about the idea of Google+ going away by Google. His comment from that thread:
I don’t believe G+ is going anywhere, but coincidentally I received a survey from Google about G+ on Tuesday. Some of the questions even asked what I would think if G+ didn’t exist anymore.
Google Denies Plans To Kill Google+
For its part, Google tells us flat out that there are no such plans. Here’s the statement that Marketing Land was sent from a Google spokesperson:
Today’s announcement has no impact on our Google+ strategy — we have an incredibly talented team that will continue to build great user experiences across Google+, Hangouts and Photos.
Ending The Failed Experiment?
Google+ has long been the butt of jokes with comedians like Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart and others as being that place where you can share things and be sure no one will see them.
It’s not uncommon for mainstream articles to describe it as a ghost town. It’s a huge reminder that for all that Google’s done to build a Facebook-killer, it hasn’t killed Facebook at all.
To be fair, there is indeed a Google+ community that engages with content, drives traffic and is passionate about being on Google+. It’s just not a top-of-mind community.
Google may have built a solid second-place rival to Facebook in terms of being a full-featured social network, but that’s like Bing being solid search challenger to Google. It doesn’t matter. People who are happy with Google don’t shift to Bing; people who are happy with Facebook — and over a billion seem to be — don’t shift to Google+.
The New Social Battlefield: Single-Purpose Apps
Indeed, the real worry for Facebook has been people leaving it for single-purpose social apps, like Instagram or WhatsApp — which also explains Facebook’s purchasing of those.
In addition, Facebook’s also busy breaking itself down into component apps. As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently told Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times:
What we’re doing with Creative Labs is basically unbundling the big blue app.
In mobile, there’s a big premium on creating single-purpose, first-class experiences.
So if Google jettisons Google+ as a sharing destination, potentially it’s ending that as a source of material for comedians and not getting bogged fighting an old battle. Instead, it might be looking ahead to where the next war of social may be happening — with single-purpose socially-enabled apps.
Google+ Returns To Being Google Account?
Before we had Google+, we had Google Accounts. But we also had a mess, where even though you had a Google Account, you might have a different profile used for Google Maps versus Google Knol (remember!) versus YouTube versus Orkut…..
While the effort to make everyone use Google+ accounts may not have gone well with some integrations, especially with the YouTube crowd, it did help unify people who use various Google services into having a single profile. That’s also helped Google in terms of offering up Google Accounts as a way for third-party sites to allow people to log-in.
So if Google+ goes away, I’d imagine you’d still have a Google Account, perhaps with a profile page, perhaps offering all the integration with Google services as there is now. It just wouldn’t be called Google+.
That move might go down well with the YouTubers angry over Google+ integration. While people still effectively might be using Google+ accounts, the Google+ account name itself would be dead — and they could cry victory even if nothing more substantial happened.
Breaking Up Google+ = Googlegram, GoogleWhatsApp & Google Reader?
Potentially, Google might take things like Google+ Photos and roll that into its own Instagram-like app. Google+ has a strong photo sharing community. Just killing that off might be wasting an opportunity. But a dedicated photo app, one that allows you to both backup all your photos on either Android or iOS devices as well as share to a dedicated photo audience? Certainly that might be worth an experiment.
Google Hangouts already exists as its own app, so presumably, this would allow that to develop even further on its own, without the negatives of Google+ dragging it down. Of course, Google still has all its Google Voice users to eventually anger, if it forces them into Google Hangouts. But perhaps there’s not that many of us anyway.
What about actual sharing on Google+, as can be done now? Is Google really going to kill all that off, as it did with Google Buzz? Here’s a thought — maybe that comes back as Google Reader.
Google angered so many by killing its Google Reader product last year, which allowed people to follow RSS feeds from various sites. Maybe Google transforms the core of Google+ into a new Google Reader and its version of Twitter. You want to share a story? Done! You want to consume similar to Facebook’s Paper? Well, it has a platform to keep experimenting with.
But What About Search?
When you go down the lists of Google+ “pieces” like this, suddenly the idea of killing Google+ doesn’t seem so crazy at all. In fact, it becomes downright appealing. But standing off to the side remains search.
You have to have a long memory to recall that Google+ started as Google +1 — and a pitch that this was all about helping Google improve search results.
Since then, Google’s done a 180 degree turn and whenever asked loves to remind that Google+ data is not used one tiny bit to boost search results. Nor, will it remind, is Facebook or Twitter social data being used.
I’ve always found this odd. The quality of signal Google harvests from links across the web to rank results keeps being eroded by people buying links or trying to manipulate links in ways that Google doesn’t like, so much so that search marketers are exhausted keeping up with the Byzantine rules from Google about what might be a bannable offense.
Making use of social signals gives Google a valuable new signal closely tied with individuals and known accounts that it could use. So why not, especially when Facebook and Twitter do? It’s been incredibly puzzling to me.
The answer might now be clear. Just as Google’s search team learned not to depend on third-party social data, after Google’s deal with Twitter collapsed in 2011, maybe it hasn’t trusted that the Google+ social data was going to be around and so didn’t want to build mechanisms to depend on that.
That doesn’t solve the issue, however, that social can be a useful signal to harvest in improving search results. Indeed, for anyone signed-in to Google and with a Google+ account, results can be dramatically different based on your social connections. Social is used for personalization.
Killing Google+ could make doing this harder, though not impossible. It might give the search team more faith about using such signals directly. And maybe, just maybe, it could mean that Google might be more open to making use of third party social signals again.
(Stock image via Shutterstock.com. Used under license.)