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The Spectacular Failure of Google+: An In-Depth Autopsy

Google holds an ubiquitous presence across the technology landscape, dominating categories like search, video, and mobile operating systems. But despite wielding enormous resources and reach, Google has failed in multiple attempts over the years at establishing a foothold in social media.

Orkut and Buzz – remember those Google social experiments? Both landed with barely a blip compared to the meteoric rise of juggernauts like Facebook and Twitter in defining 21st century social interaction.

Undeterred, Google doubled down in 2011 by launching their most ambitious bet yet on social – Google+. The fledging social network arrived amid much fanfare as a homegrown competitor to global sensation Facebook.

So what went wrong? Why didn‘t Google+ succeed in an arena where Google rarely fails? Let‘s perform a forensic analysis on Google+ as a spectacular case of a technology product missing the mark and failing to achieve liftoff.

Opening Statements: Google‘s Social Media Tribulations

Google has triumphed across a dizzying array of products – web search, Android, Maps, Gmail etc. But notably absent from their trophy case of success has been social media and networking platforms.

Prior attempts like Orkut and Google Buzz scored little success beyond niches. Orkut peaked around 300 million users mostly just in Brazil and India before eventual shutdown. Google Buzz fizzled out after about a year once privacy issues surfaced around followed accounts being made public by default.

But social media represented a massive opportunity in both attention and advertising dollars that Google could not ignore while competitors posted staggering statistics:

Year Facebook Monthly Active Users Twitter Monthly Active Users
2010 552 million 23 million
2011 845 million 100 million

And these networks were just coming into their own in pioneering concepts like social sharing, news feeds, and harnessing friend networks to surface personally relevant content.

Google rightfully did not want to be left out of 10s of billions in future revenue at stake in social media. And with their existing suite of popular communication products around email, video, and chat, they already had fertile ground to nurture their own social ecosystem.

Prime Suspect: Founding Google+ as a True Social Challenger

In 2011, new Google SVP Vic Gundotra along with Bradley Horowitz initiated development of their next big swing at a potentially winning social product – Google+.

They sought to leapfrog existing solutions by refining and enhancing standard social media capabilities for sharing personal life highlights, conversations, and media. Google+ incorporated:

  • Circles to organize connections and share to relevant audiences
  • Sparks to flag interests and discover related content
  • Hangouts for group video chat
  • Alongside typical features like streams, comments, likes etc.

And Google brought to bear all its experience in algorithms, scale, and infrastructure to address previous performance bottlenecks around social data at Facebook‘s volumes.

News of a formidable Google entering the arena spurred other industry heavyweights like Facebook into action. Former Facebook CTO Bret Taylor remarked in his book:

When Google+ launched, we went into full lockdown. Mark Zuckerberg gathered the company in the cafeteria…to announce that everyone needed to drop whatever they were doing and fix holes the site had in comparison to Google+

Clearly Google wasn‘t just firing blanks – early impressions established Google+ as a legitimate challenger to rule social media. So with all their technical prowess and focus aimed at firing on all cylinders, why didn‘t Google+ ultimately accelerate to success?

The Smoking Gun: Lackluster User Engagement Stats

Within months of launch, Google+ sported a healthy community of 90 million+ users – proof that people would show up and create accounts after Google‘s call to action across their products:

Google+ Signup Modal

However, usage and daily engagement metrics told a different story. 3.3 minutes. That was the average monthly time spent per Google+ user following signup based on Comscore‘s analysis. Compare that to 7+ hours average for Facebook.

In essence, people readily signed up for accounts when prompted but rarely engaged meaningfully with any social features afterwards. They produced the dreaded "ghost town" effect where profiles were plentiful but actual interactive end users were scarce.

This stemmed from an inherently confusing early user experience once past initial signup. Core social features around sharing and networks were buried away while unnecessary elements hogged attention. The end result was an empty shell – people created accounts but never figured out how to properly leverage the network.

And unlike truly viral social products, Google+ failed the most crucial test of organically driving users to return and engage daily in rich, fulfilling ways with a thriving community. A desolate user base spelled doom for ever gaining the momentum required to play with the big boys.

CSI Analysis: Circumstantial Evidence Mounting Failure

By 2014, there were rumblings that while adoption figures seemed nominally impressive, actual usage left much to be desired:

Date Google+ Monthly Active Users
Oct 2013 300 million
Apr 2014 343 million

Hitting hundreds of millions of users seemed promising until usage metrics told the full tale. Google+ VP Bradley Horowitz admitted reaching this wider consumer base came at the expense of "core users" truly invested in deep social interaction.

And strangling organic user motivation by continuing to badge and forcibly highlight Google+ signups/sharing across their ecosystem drew public criticism.

Horowitz instituted a series of product changes:

  • Simplfying the interface and removing unused features
  • Pivoting focus to interest based communities over general socializing

But this only seemed to neuter the small base of engaged users actually leveraging Google+ for networking and sharing their personal lives. And the platform struggled to ever recapture buzz and interest previously galvanized by the notion of becoming Facebook‘s biggest threat.

By 2016 monthly consumer logins declined over 70% from 2015 levels according to confidential documents – the platform was flatlining.

Fatal Error: API Privacy Debacles Drive Final Nails

In October 2018 Google announced plans to shut down Google+ consumer functionality by August 2019, citing the "significant challenges in creating and maintaining a viable competitor to other social media platforms".

While no surprise given well documented struggles, it came on the heels of the discovery of yet another Google+ API bug exposing private data to external developers. The optics of compromised privacy severely damaged already fading trust.

And as if deliberately attempting to kick the platform while down, another API issue surfaced in December 2018 impacting 52+ million users! This outrageous breach so late in the game forced an accelerated April 2 2019 shutdown.

For Google+ this dealt terminal blows it just could not come back from, hammering home perceptions of sloppy disregard for controls around user information. It closed the books on Google‘s great social media experiment.

The Living Victims: Google+ Still Impacts The Social Landscape

While never emerging as a sustainable social entity itself, Google+ left an impact on both Google‘s internal development philosophies and the wider social media space. Among the lingering effects:

Product Prioritization at Google

  • Greater scrutiny on requirements to drive regular engagement at scale
  • Wariness on being too pushy / intrusive with cross-promotions

Competitive Functionality

  • Facebook Circles equivalent Lists
  • Twitter‘s Communities build on interest sharing

Enterprise Collaboration

  • Currents carries the torch for organization use case

And most interestingly, former CEO Eric Schmidt suggests search integration could have been Google+‘s Trojan horse into broader usage. So the next evolution of Google‘s social strategy will be one to watch.

Closing Statements: Key Takeaways from the Case Study of Google+

It can be hard to reconcile the utter dominance Google enjoys across nearly aspect of technology with the resounding failure Google+ signifies as their missing piece in social media.

Reviewing the evidence, we can ascribe Google+‘s failure to achieve mass consumer adoption to three key factors:

1. Confusing interface curbed viral growth

Non-intuitive UX deterred daily active usage critical to stickiness after initial installs

2. Lack of differentiation lost network momentum

Pivots between direct Facebook competition and interest communities diluted purpose

3. Privacy issues eroded already fragile trust

High profile API exposes made the platform untenable long term

Of course, no autopsy can apply findings from one patient to predict future outcomes for another subject. Perhaps Google‘s next attempt will learn from these mistakes and discover the secret sauce to crack the social media code. But until then, Google+ stands as a case study on how even one of tech‘s greatest success stories can miss the mark.