What went wrong with Google+ and how Google can fix it

Steven Loeb · March 9, 2015 · Short URL: https://vator.tv/n/3c6f

If it combines social and search, or buys an aggregator like Flipboard, it might succeed at social

It wasn't that long ago, only 2011, that Google+ was launched as an apparent shot across the bow at Facebook. Soon, people would be making a mass exit from their preferred social network of choice, and signing up for this new option. Or something like that.

Well, it never quite worked out the way it was supposed to. Barely anyone I know ever used, or ever even talked about, Google+. The company showed user numbers that nearly doubled those of Twitter, but almost everyone considered those to be inflated by other Google features that were much more widely used than its social network, including Docs and YouTube.

And now Google+, as we all know it, is likely dead.

Early last week Google+ made two big announcments: first it was given a new head in Google product vice-president Bradley Horowitz, and second that it was going to be split up into two separate apps, one for photos and one for a social stream.

The most telling thing about the future of Google+ is that, in the announcement  of his new job, Horowitz never even used the term Google+. That tells you that the brand is almost certainly not long for this world.

So what happened? Why did Google+ fail and, most importantly, will this new plan work out?  

Is social really in Google's blood?

There are a number of reasons that Google+ may have failed. Timig is everything and in a world of social networking exhaustion, Google+ was late to the game. And if you're late to the game, with no differentiation from existing sites, then there's no point. Many agree.

"Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, they occupy the social networking space in the traditional sense. Google+ was a later player, and it couldn't be a 'me too' application," said Clara Shih, founder and CEO of Hearsay Social, an enterprise social sales platform that helps sales forces use social media to attract prospects, retain customers, and grow their business. "It had to occupy a different role."

The other problem, she said, was the network was just too big and, frankly, confusing to navigate.

"When it comes to mobile usage, people don't want to go into a huge, bloated app. They don't want to click around to get to what they want to get to," she said. "That is why Facebook broke out Messenger; on your phone, you want to go directly to the app, and in a split second do what you intend to do."

Others, however, see an even more fundamental problem, and it comes from Google itself.

"Google is a great company, but what's made Google great is a certain psychology, or mentality, for how they build products. It's done with simplicity in mind, and user experience. There's a very heavy engineering culture, and they make things better with machine learning and algorithms," serial entrepreneur Tom Patterson told me. Patterson is a mentor and coach at Alchemist Accelerator, as well as the founder and former of CEO of Wize, and the former President of Nextag. 

"What they know is how to do great search, and great ads. Google saw Facebook become a threat to its ads business so it launched Google+. The thought was, 'we build great tech, we can build great social site.'"

What Google hasn't been, though, is a great personal or social company.

"The big lesson is that most, if not all, of the great community and social sites are built in the DNA of founding team," he said.

For example, the people who built Flickr, really loved photos and had a connection to the photo community. When Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook, he had a connection to the nature of the college students that made up the early days of the company.

Google, however, had no connection to its community and so, Patterson said, Google+ wound up not having any soul.

"They had the passion for social, but what they didn't have was the psychology for what social was. Google didnt have the structure, so it built a lot of features, but didn't work on community interaction," he said. "There was no heart or soul in it. They were just trying to copy Facebook, but there is not enough time to do both, and they wound up getting second-tier content."

But the perhaps harshest criticism of Google came from Robert Scoble, tech evangelist and Startup Liaison Officer and Technology Evangelist at Rackspace.

First, he said, the main issue was that Google never added in filters that would not only put the most interesting content at the top of the feed. On top of that it also became too complex. Instead of simplifying Google+, and giving its users the most interesting content, Google never did either of those things. 

"In its first week, I wrote about how Google+ was suggesting people who don't post, and giving me content I don't care about, asking them, 'Why don’t you fix this?' And it still suggests people to me who never posted," he said.

The bigger problem to Scoble, though, is that Google just fundamentally does not understand social. And that comes from the top.

"There is a huge difference between Mark and Larry. Larry doesn't talk about social features and social search. With Mark, that's all he talks about. How social is affecting the world, politics, and companies and lives. He knows about all the social stuff and can talk about it in depth," Scoble said.

"That leadership comes from the top. Sergei admitted that Google is bad at social and Vic wasn’t on Facebook until just last month. How are you going to beat Facebook when you don’t understand what it's doing? You can't do that just by looking at it, you have to use it. I see Mark on messenger, checking in and using location features. I never see Eric Schmidt or Sergei."

Google, he said, is just not a social company, and that means that those working for it are not going to put their focus in that area.

"I think it goes back to leadership. If you're a developer, are you going to focus on social when your boss doesnt care about social?" he said. "It's not hard to figure out where your career would be helped the best. Nobody is getting to be rockstar inside Ggoogle by running the social stuff."

Will splitting up the app succeed?

Given all of those problems, the next question is: will splitting up the company actually save Google+? The consesus among those I spoke to seem to be that Google has a good chance to succeed on the photo side; on the social feed, though, it will be much more difficult.

"Google's photo features are really good. They have automatic updates and improvements when you upload a photo, that really tries to make it better. It's cool stuff," said Scoble. "Stick with those features into a photos apps, call it Google Photo. But I don't see good things for Google+. With the stream, I'm just not sure how to make it relevant. The Facebook stream is far better, with more content."

Shih expressed similar sentiments to me about where Google was most likely to succeed, pointing out that with photos Google may not even have to compete against other popular photo-sharing services, like Instagram, if it takes advantage of its own unique capabilities.

Google Photos "makes a lot of sense," she said, and if the company can put its resources into allowing for massive amounts of photo storage, rather than just focusing on photo sharing, that would help differentiate it from the pack.

"Instagram is all about real-time sharing, putting up pictures one at a time on your photo stream," said Shih. "Google excels in photo storage and albums. Thats how I use Google+ and it can succeed by pushing a drive storage solution and becoming a competitor to Dropbox and Box."

But, she said, whatever happens, splitting up the app is a good step in the right direction for the company.

"Google is doing the same thing that Facebook and so many others have done by focusing on specific uses to reorient the user around lightweight focused apps," she said. "Splitting into clear, simple and focused apps is where the mobile world is pushing everyone."

Patterson told me he wonders if "Google really knows photos," but did say that it had a chance to succeed in that area if it can make it simple and have a clear message, something that Google+ has, frankly, always lacked.

"Social streaming is going to be more challenging, because it's kind of hard to get right. Twitter was the first out there, and it got enough people retweeting, favoriting and following that it became the de facto place to go to," he said. "Will there be another community of 140 character comments? Maybe, but it doesn't feel differentiated enough right now." 

All of that may be for naught, though, if the leadership simply isn't there to steer in the right direction. Scoble expressed some ambivilance over the choice of Horowitz to run the new apps, calling him "a non offensive person, someone who can just keep it running," but who also will likely not be able to take social to the next level at Google.

"I've never come away from a talk with Bradley and been like, 'You're a visionary.' It's not like with Zuckerberg, where he always tells me something new about social. Bradley never says something new about social. Is he really using this stuff? Do I see him on there? No, not really."

Horowitz, he said, "is not the kind of guy who's going to rock the boat and tell me something new about Facebook that I should think about. He's not a thought leader in that way."


If Google+ is to succeed at streaming, Shih, Patterson and Scoble all believe that it must leverage its unique abilities and combine social with search.

"If Google tries to replicate the Facebook or Twitter feed it is going to fail. It need to focus on other areas, unoccupied niches, and areas that tap into what Google uniquely can do," said Shih. "It is succeeding with search, location and maps. It has a wealth of assets it could utilize."

Putting search data into social is a "tremendous opportunity."

Ironically, that is something that Facebook is also trying to do, having launched Graph Search in 2013, so it would, once again, put the two companies in direct competition. So far, though,  neither company has been able to truly succeed in this area, and that gives Google the opportunity to make a big play. 

In addition to putting search and social together, Scoble had another, even more interesting idea for how Google could make a successful stream: cut out original content altogether and just become an aggregator.

If t were up to him, he said, he would take the team that builds features for Gmail, including filters, and "tell them we're building a filtering product for streams." Then the company "could grab content from around the Web and filter is for various customers." 

"Why couldn't the stream come from Twitter, Tumblr and Medium? Why does it need to come from Google+?" he said. "If Google can come up with better filtering than Facebook that will be very interesting."

While Google obviously has plenty of people who are experts at machine learing, the best way way for Google to succeed in this area would be to make a big plan and buy a news aggregator like Circa, Nuzzle or Prismatic, which was recently rumored to be have been in talks to be purchased by Microsoft.

"It's a crowded space, and Facebook has its own machine learning experts. That's the problem: Facebook and the rest of industry has run away from Google. It has has fallen behind, and hasn’t used the best machine learning capabilities," said Scoble.

"If Google bought Flipboard, then I'd say, 'You're back in the game.' Horowtiz drove the acquisition of Flickr, so he understands the power of a good acquisition. It wouldn’t shock me if he bought something like Flipboard or Circa or Prismatic. It would let me know they have an idea of where they went wrong and how to fix it."

Even if the acquisition price was $10 billion, he said, it would still be worth it for Google in the long run.

(Image source: thenextweb.com)

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