Why we shouldn’t be so quick to write Google+ off

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Although Google+ is still only a few months old, there seem to be plenty of people willing to write it off as doomed, or close to it. Steve Rubel of Edelman says that he has given up on it, Robert Scoble says its brand pages are a mess, and Farhad Manjoo at Slate argues it’s all but dead, killed by its failure to offer enough right out of the gate. While it would be tempting to agree that Google has flubbed yet another attempt at social networking, since its track record in that area is so famously underwhelming, there are good reasons to believe that Google+ will be around for a while. If anything, it is only beginning to show its real power.

Rubel says he has quit the network because there just isn’t enough going on there in terms of engagement, and so he has retreated to his Tumblr blog and to Twitter (Rubel, the head of digital strategy for the global Edelman PR agency, recently nuked his blogs and switched over to Tumblr as his main communications channel). Others, including Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have also complained that Google+ doesn’t offer enough to make it worth their while, and that the “signal-to-noise” ratio on the network is too low, despite Google’s circle-based follower system.

For his part, Robert Scoble says Google’s rollout of brand pages is flawed in a number of crucial ways, despite the fact that the company has been working on this feature for some time, and has an obvious model for how pages should work in Facebook. Scoble notes that pages can’t be added to or modified by more than one person — which makes them difficult to use for companies with social-media teams — and others have pointed out that Google’s policies currently prevent brands from offering contests or promotions directly on their Google+ pages, which seems shortsighted at best.

Is Google+ fatally flawed? Far from it

Manjoo, meanwhile, seems to be arguing that all these flaws mean Google’s “beta mode” approach has failed them, and Google+ is functionally crippled to the point where it will never be able to compete with Facebook. As he puts it:

Although Google seems determined to keep adding new features, I suspect there’s little it can do to prevent Google+ from becoming a ghost town. Google might not know it yet, but from the outside, it’s clear that G+ has started to die

I’m far from being the biggest supporter of Google+ (Scoble seems to be happy to claim that role). I’m still not convinced that enough “normals” — i.e. non-geeks — are going to adopt the platform, despite Google’s claim that it has more than 40 million users, and there are a number of things that have bugged me about the service, including the company’s steadfast refusal to allow pseudonyms until recently. I also haven’t found the signal-to-noise ratio to be all that high, despite my use of Circles — but then, it took me two years before I got Twitter to the point where it was providing a consistently high signal.

But the problem with many of these criticisms — as with Manjoo’s premature obituary writing — isn’t just that social networks take time to evolve, and users need time to find out what they are useful for and what they aren’t useful for (Twitter is a perfect example of that, since its own creators didn’t really know what it was for when they built it). The problem is that they are seeing Google+ as JASN: just another social network. So Manjoo seems to be saying that Google has no chance because Facebook is too well-established, has too many features, too many users, etc.

Google has some powerful levers yet to pull

But Google has made it clear it has bigger plans for Google+ than just making it a Facebook clone. Chairman Eric Schmidt has said the company wants to make the network an identity platform for all of its properties: something it’s already in the process of doing by integrating it into products like Google Reader, and it’s building support for it into search as well, with the launch of what it calls “Direct Connect,” which will allow users to go from a search result to a company’s Google+ page with a single click. Can Facebook offer that?

And that’s likely just the beginning: Google could easily extend the integration of Google+ into its Chrome browser, as some have speculated it might, and it hasn’t even turned on what could be one of the biggest drivers of adoption: integration with Gmail. That’s hundreds of millions of people being connected to Google+ immediately from their email inbox, another thing Facebook can’t offer. (It has tried moving into unified messaging as a way of increasing its hold over users, but so far the jury is out on that strategy).

As Edd Dumbill of O’Reilly argued recently, Google is pretty well positioned to turn Google+ into a “social backbone” — something far more advanced and pervasive than just a social network. Obviously, Facebook would like to fill this kind of function as well, but it is missing many of the crucial ingredients that Google has, and it’s also a much more walled-garden approach, which could impede its progress. Facebook is more than happy to have you build apps and services that work on Facebook, but it’s a lot less interested in being open than Google is, and that makes it a somewhat harder sell.

So yes, Google+ is noisy for some, and for others is a ghost town. Many of its features are raw and need work, like the brand page rollout. But Google isn’t just trying to build a place to share photos of your cat; it wants Google+ to be a social layer for everything it does, and it has some powerful levers it can pull when it comes to encouraging people to use it, such as search and email. The full impact of that integration remains to be seen, but it is far too soon to call the network dead or a loser. It’s barely even the third inning.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users World Economic Forum

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