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Summary:

As Google+ head Vic Gundotra leaves the company, does the social platform have enough utility to be sustainable?

google-plus-puzzle
photo: Gigaom Illustration

Google+ is in a tough spot: Vic Gundotra, the Google executive who has run the platform since it debuted in 2011, announced on Thursday that he would resign from the company, leaving Google+ in the hands of VP of engineering Dave Besbris. Without the man who has been the driving force for the product, Google’s great experiment is left with even less momentum than it currently has.

Does Google+ have the means and resources to stay away from the company graveyard?

The answer is probably no. As it stands now, many of the features that make up Google+ — Communities, Circles and the Profile — don’t have the momentum or active user base to be considered a viable social network. But the utility products that Google+ does best — Hangouts and Photos — continue to drive value. The tools are worth using, but the binding that holds it all together remains lackluster.

Here’s a breakdown of how Google+ looks today, and how it can continue tomorrow.

The Good: Hangouts and Photos

A Google representative would not provide statistics about how much traffic each component of Google+ gets, but it’s clear from the way Google treats the platforms Photos and Hangouts features that those are the high-value products. They have spawned rich tools on both desktop and mobile that are independently useful and don’t require any actual participation in Google+ to take advantage of what they offer.

Hangouts, originally describing the video-call sessions facilitated by Google+, is now the widespread term for all of Google’s communications, unifying features of Google Talk and gChat and becoming the mobile communication app for both iPhone and Android. It’s spawned Hangouts on Air, which ports Hangouts to YouTube, and Helpouts, which offer real-time advice to users.

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The same can be said for Google+ Photos, which has become a major draw for users to interact with the platform thanks to its Auto Backup feature. In fact, without Hangouts baked in, Google+ for mobile has become all about Auto Backup: a Google+ Photos feature that allows both iPhone and Android to automatically upload and automatically sort mobile camera uploads. Auto Backup takes advantage of Google’s storage and Photo editing tools to make a cross-platform, cloud-based photo service. On the desktop, users can also erase distracting objects from photos, stitch two photos together to bring together the best faces in a single picture, and use a “Magic” button to enhance photos. These photos can be stored with Google’s free 30GB in space, or users can purchase up to 1TB for $9.99 per month.  Operating as a freemium backup and editing service, Google+ Photos is unparalleled in its utility — it just remains attached to an experience that doesn’t excite otherwise.

The Bad: Streams, Circles, and Community

Where Hangouts and Photos comprise the “tools” part of Google+, the rest of Google+ is focused on the experience. There is the Profile, which encourages users to post and interact in a similar way to Facebook’s Timeline; Circles, which allows users to compartmentalize their friends to create different broadcast groups; and Communities, which operate like public group pages. These features represent the bones of Google+: Gundotra’s goal was to make Google+ a destination.

But that hasn’t worked out. Google wouldn’t tell me how many users Google+ has, but Gundotra said in October of 2013 that the site had 300 million monthly active users. That seems like an impressive number — larger than the number of monthly active users on Twitter or Instagram — but it may be overstated. TechCrunch reported Thursday said that the monthly user numbers Gundotra has said in the past were fudged, counting sign-ins to other products like gMail as Google+ activity.

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Google+ has never really solved its people problem. The experiences that Gundotra has praised in the past — posting on the platform, circles, and engaging in the Google+ community at large — aren’t unique enough to make Google+ more than a borderline ghost town. In fact, the new statistics on Google+ profiles  reinforce that notion — they roll page and photo views up into a fluffy metric designed to help users and brands believe that people are engaging with content, even if actual interactions aren’t taking place.

The Bottom Line

Google+’s future is murky. TechCrunch reports, citing unidentified sources, that it will be turned into a platform rather than a product, with the Hangouts and Photos teams absorbed into surrounding departments (predominately Android). Despite its lackluster community, Google+ is still a hub for features that serve social purposes that drive value to the company. But, as the social experiment Gundotra envisioned, Google+ has already given up the ghost.

  1. Circles are a wonderful invention – they mean that I see all of the news and updates that are really relevant to me, and can put other stuff on the side to dip into occasionally. In contrast, Facebook has become a hot mess of updates dominated by the noisiest of people that I’m connected to.

    Communities are a good addition too, as long as they’re used properly. There’s been a tendency for some people to create private communities when they should be connecting posts together by using a public +whatever handle. For example, I don’t want to share a photo of an interesting piece of stained glass in the Google Plus ‘Window Wednesday’ private community and then have to reshare it so that people can see it in the public Google+ space. That’s partially Google’s fault, because they don’t give decent guidance on when you should and shouldn’t create a private community.

    What *is* interesting and relevant about Gundotra’s departure is that they’ve replaced him with an engineer, rather than Brad Horowitz, who is a social media guy through and through.

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    1. Spot on Pete and both circles and communities has the potential to bring a value added scenario to a twitter like process.

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      1. Lauren Hockenson Friday, April 25, 2014

        The potential for them is great, certainly. But the problem is that they need to perform, and they’re not. That’s the problem.

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        1. Please define “perform” pleaase, as many many of us experiences a huge living community

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  2. James Harris Friday, April 25, 2014

    The part that drives me crazy about Google+ is that they won’t sort out actually publishing to the network. I’m a Twitter first user and I syndicate portions of my content to Facebook. If I wasn’t allowed to do this I would virtually be a non-entity on Facebook, but instead I can share content from my preferred network and still connect with FB users. The only reason I even log into Facebook is notifications that people are interacting with what I share there, I never go to just browse. Google on the other hand wants me to give it special consideration and devote time to using their platform at the expense of other platform, hence why I don’t actively use G+. Actually allowing people to publish and share content to the platform would go a long way towards helping what ails the platform.

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  3. I’m not in Facebook. I was somewhat forced into Google+ as I use Picasa. It is a reasonable way to share photos. I just used the Hangout this week for a conference / professional meeting it worked o.k. (I had the Hangout up but opened Docs in a separate screen — don’t think we could jointly edit the Google Doc in the screenshare). Also, I was dropped from the session at one point and it was not clear how to return to it. I don’t like it suggests that I connect with family members of people with whom I’m connected; I’d prefer not to have suggested connections. Creating circles is unclear to me. It is also unclear how the usability differs between gmail users and non gmail users. It requires better privacy, better usability, better customization but it is a useful tool. I haven’t used MS Office in a long time; I now almost solely use Google (gmail, Google Docs, Google+, etc.) for my professional work. Microsoft has more to worry about than Google….

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  4. I have accounts on almost every social network. The ones that I use actively have all found their own niche use case for me. Facebook for keeping friends and family up to date on the kids, LInkedin for career, TWitter for fun, Quora for expertise etc… The only thing I use G+ for is seo (which I’m kind of forced to do by Google). Depending on your perspective, that either a very high value use case, or an incredibly low one…

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  5. TechCrunch has been blasting Google+ since the service first rolled out. For some reason they don’t like it and they never miss an opportunity to cobble together a “G+ is dead” or “G+ is a ghost town” piece based on rumors and hearsay.

    It’s pretty disappointing that GigaOm is now parroting them.

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    1. “It’s pretty disappointing that GigaOm is now parroting them.”

      Indeed. Citing TC (on this topic especially) is doing anything good for their credibility.

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      1. *isn’t

        An edit capability would be nice.

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  6. Wow, it’s obvious you’re not on Google+

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    1. The a are can be said for almost everyone else.

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  7. Kyle Salewski Friday, April 25, 2014

    Lauren, have you ever used Google+? Looks like you have never even made a public post.
    https://plus.google.com/u/0/104351369541059038581/posts
    It’s obvious no journalism actually went into this article. Seems you just wanted another clickbait article to go along with other sites that wrote them yesterday. I would think you would actually have to use a product to give your opinion on it, but apparently not…

    If you actually use Google+, you will see it is alive and thriving. Communities, Posts, Circles – they are all great and you get to meet interesting amazing people everyday. The only thing that is killing G+ is these nonsense articles. I’d recommend you read this article Lauren:

    GOOGLE PLUS GHOST TOWN : MY OPEN LETTER TO THE MISGUIDED REPORTERS
    http://www.amandablain.com/google-plus-ghost-town/

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    1. Well Said Kyle.

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    2. I was going to say the same thing about the amount of thinking that had gone into this piece, but was too polite to say so. It has a ‘clickbait’ title as well, which really is a no-no…

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    3. Lauren Hockenson Friday, April 25, 2014

      Actually Kyle, you’re grievously mistaken:

      I actually use Google+ weekly, privately, to keep in touch with my family in friends. It’s a fallacy to think that because I don’t post publicly (which I only do on Twitter) that I am not familiar with the service or its functions, or that I didn’t do journalism to reach the conclusions that I did.

      I’m not judging Google+ on the quality of the communities or the passion of the people that are there, but the cold hard fact is that Google+, in its near-three-year existence, hasn’t hit any kind of mainstream traction. It’s easy to adopt the “wait and see” mantra, but the social media world is difficult, and now it requires fast adoption (see: Snapchat) in order to make a splash.

      You are obviously a deep fan of Google+ and what it offers you, and that’s fine, but your passion doesn’t mitigate the fact that the system is flawed and that it’s going to be difficult to fix — especially since the person who pushed that system is gone.

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      1. Lauren I think you are misguided to think that G+ isn’t mainstream. While definitely not on par with Facebook (who is?) it absolutely is mainstream. If you want to be an honest journalist then you should cite specific sources and data that support your claims. You provide snapchat as an example that is “mainstream”. Yes its the buzz of the moment but you do realize that its monthly actives as of Dec. 2013 were 30 million, a far cry from the 300 million active in the stream users per month on G+ as reported in Oct 2013. And I will cite you the official google blog post that explicitly states that the 300 million actives are actual numbers in the G+ stream itself (not as GMail sign ins or Youtube signins) : http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2013/10/google-hangouts-and-photos-save-some.html

        You on the other hand just casually mention that this number is overstated while linking to a TechCrunch article that doesn’t even say anything about it being overstated which itself is all littered with hearsay and anonymous sources.

        You would have a bit more credibility if your opinion is substantiated by facts and real numbers but I am still waiting for you to present them. I would understand if this were presented as just your personal opinion piece as every one has a right to an opinion but do not generalize the state of G+ based on your own personal experience.

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      2. “…..ut the cold hard fact is that Google+, in its near-three-year existence, hasn’t hit any kind of mainstream traction”

        This is why people are questioning the credibility of this article. For a journalist this is a terrible thing to say. One of the core principles of journalism is that you have to be able to back up what you say. There is absolutely no way that anyone outside of Google knows this. This is complete speculation. This is fine, but as a journalist, if you are going to speculate, you have to clearly identify that this is what you are doing since, by saying the above statement, the burden of truth falls on you.

        This has nothing to do with being a fan or not being a fan. I personally see fairly widespread engagement on my own page although there are areas that could be improved.

        The issue that @Kyle Salewski pointed out I will echo in that you are misrepresenting speculation as fact. As a journalist, that is plain wrong and unethical.

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      3. Probe it!, Probe that you use G+ weekly, or you are just talking shit because you can say you post privately when truth is that you don’t?

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      4. Brendan Thesingh Saturday, April 26, 2014

        According to figures you can look up in Comscore (I can help you with that) Google+ has on desktop 195 million unique users above that is twitter with 205 million users. Then of course facebook with a whole lot more. But next to the statistics there are large numbers of personal experiences. Of which you can easily find examples. Just people reacting here are an example.

        Of course you can always discuss how well it works for you personally or what success means and speculate about the future. Regarding how well it works the Google+ team is very responsive to feedback and improvements. The number of features that have rolled out the past 3 years is impressive.

        The whole G+ is dead/ghosttown/not succesful (enough) type article is becoming ridiculous. Every time there is pushback from the users and somehow media outlets keep harping on it.

        In my personal experience I am having lots interaction on G+. And on the business side I am getting customers for G+ promotion. In The Netherlands where G+ is not even as big as in the US.

        Anyway thanks for even responding to comments, becaues some of your colleagues are not even taking the time to do that.

        It’s funny though TechCrunch is posting on it’s G+ page that G+ is dead. They have more followers on G+ than any social network.

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      5. grahamfreeman Sunday, April 27, 2014

        “or that I didn’t do journalism to reach the conclusions that I did.”

        Ouch. That was almost Junior High level writing. How does one “do journalism”?

        You referred to “cold hard fact” in the same breath as “mainstream traction”, but didn’t actually lay out what ‘factually’ mainstream traction is. How is that a fact? It’s your opinion – it’s certainly not a fact. Sloppy journalism.

        “Gundotra’s goal was to make Google+ a destination.” Go back and re-read the link you provided. He said that Google+ IS ALSO a destination. At no point in that post did he mention what his goal was. Sloppy journalism.

        “now it requires fast adoption (see: Snapchat) in order to make a splash.” This may be true, but why does everything have to make a splash in order to be successful?

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  8. Mike Elliott Friday, April 25, 2014

    The initial aggressiveness of Google+ was so intense it burned it’s reputation with Google supporters. Mixing Google+ with YouTube and then with supporters accidently doing alterations to their Google+ account caused the Google+/YouTube uploaders to be in danger of possibly losing their entire YouTube channel. The scam was too fast, too complex and too demanding. The word got out Google+ was strongarming their customers. That did it. The message, then was, Stay away!” What a waste of resources over STUPIDLY-forceful and deliberate intentions. A dirty, rotten concept, actually. Google should apologize and attempt to restore any lost YouTube accounts. This will show the corporation can admit to a mistake and thereby, possibly, restore a portion of it’s lost reputation.

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    1. Exactly!

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  9. oh! A girl that never used G+ teaching us how bad it is… “ghost town”? That’s 2013’s buzz word, you know?
    You’ve been better, Gigaom.

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  10. Rajiv Sobhee Friday, April 25, 2014

    Was just bad design from the start. Lacked creativity from all corners.. they also never listened or makde the network according to what people needed. They just went on with it completely wrong. In the beginning lots of people lost their photos due to poor shift from previous platforms. It was simply incompetent leadership and direction.

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