Google Plus: The problem isn’t design, it’s a lack of demand

71 Comments

While Google continues to maintain that its Google+ social network is doing just fine, thank you very much — with a user base of about 100 million, according to the web giant — skepticism about the actual popularity of the service remains high. New York Times writer Nick Bilton argues in a recent post that the problem with Google+ is poor design, since new social networks like Path and Instagram have managed to gain a substantial audience. As others have pointed out, however, those networks are much more specific than Google+ wants to be: Google’s vision is of a Facebook-style network that encompasses hundreds of millions of people and a broad range of activities. The problem is that no one seems to want that except Google.

A recent Wall Street Journal story on Google+ painted a picture of a service that is “a virtual ghost town,” a network where users spent an average of just three minutes a month, according to statistics from web measurement firm comScore — in other words, a blink of an eye compared to the six or seven hours that typical Facebook users spend on the site. While comScore’s traffic numbers suffer from a number of problems, including the fact that they don’t measure mobile usage, that still indicates a massive gap between Google+ and Facebook. And measuring mobile probably wouldn’t help Google+ much anyway, since its mobile apps still leave a lot to be desired.

Google still sees Google+ as an “identity service”

Google responded fairly swiftly to the WSJ piece by talking to Bilton and the New York Times about how great Google+ is doing. Vic Gundotra, the executive in charge of the network, made the case that the company had “never seen anything grow this fast, ever” and that Google was more than happy with the usage of the service. Gundotra said that according to the company’s internal measurements, more than 50 million people use the network daily — which sounds pretty impressive, until you notice that this number represents people who have used “Google+ enhanced products.”

That means anyone who has logged into YouTube or Google.com or Picasa, or done any number of other things that are tied to Google+. Said Gundotra:

This is just the next version of Google. Everything is being upgraded. We already have users. We’re now upgrading them to what we consider Google 2.0.

In other words, Google sees its network as a social layer that is integrated into all of its other services, as VP of product Bradley Horowitz argued last year when he said Google+ would become part of everything the company did — and chairman Eric Schmidt said that he saw the network as an “identity service” that would be incorporated into all of Google’s products. That vision is presumably what convinced Google that favoring its own Google+ content in search results via the “Search Plus Your World” personalization feature was a good idea, instead of being (as some see it) a betrayal of its previous promise to users about providing unbiased and objective search results.

So it’s easy to see why Google would want a network like Google+ — among other things, it provides all kinds of data about users that could be useful for ad targeting (which seemed to be the real impetus behind the company’s initial insistence that users provide real names instead of pseudonyms). But why do users need it? That one is a lot harder to answer, and the short version may be simply that they don’t. While the network has caught on with certain groups of users, including the photographic community and early adopters such as blogger and uber-geek Robert Scoble, there remains little that would compel users who are already attached to Twitter or Facebook to spend large amounts of time on Google+.

What does Google+ offer that other networks don’t?

Bilton argues that new networks like Path and Instagram have captured a large and devoted user base, so therefore Google+ must be suffering from other problems such as poor design. But I’m inclined to agree with developer and designer Tom Coates that Google’s service is actually quite well designed in many respects, as one would expect from something that was crafted in large part by legendary Apple designer Andy Hertzfeld, the man behind the Macintosh and other products. The way the Google+ web version functions is actually quite impressive in many respects, especially when compared to most of the other socially-oriented services that have come out of Google.

I think Path and Instagram, both of which I use and enjoy, offer different aspects of social networking to users. It’s true that Path’s design and usability are excellent, and they make it a pleasure to use the app — but it is the small and defined nature of the social graph one has on the service (which is restricted to 150 connections) that makes it really useful. And with Instagram, it is focused on the simple act of sharing a photo and posting comments, and that focus makes it appealing in a way that Google+ is not, and likely never will be. And if I want to share with a larger group, then there is Facebook.

As a former Googler argued in a recent blog post about his departure from the company, the single biggest problem with Google+ is that no one needs it except Google. Do some people like and enjoy using it? Clearly there are some who do. But they don’t need it in the same way they need other networks like Facebook. Whenever I use Google+, I feel like I am doing Google a favor, but it’s not clear what I get out of it. Until Google can change that kind of perception, its network is going to seem a lot like one user’s devastating putdown, which compared it to a cemetery — plenty of residents, but not much activity.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Nevada Tumbleweed and Steve Jurvetson.

71 Comments

coydavidson

G+ is great place to argue with geeks about who produces a better cell phone….mmm that’s about it. Why the kool-aid drinker can’t figure out that isn’t any more appealing than a farmville request? I guess doesn’t surprise me. Social Layer = nobody’s using it, so we can’t call it a social network. If it wasn’t struggling we would hear that it’s the greatest social network ever from the Google PR department. I had high hopes for G+ but the bottom line is that the vast majority of people don’t care about it and they likely never will. In their mind Google is a search engine…. a utility.

jack

The author is spot on about g+. I signed up unwillingly to facebook and did nothing with the account for two weeks. When i opened it again old friends, family and acquantences had sent friends requests. My facebook activity skyrocketed after that. I’ve been on g+ four times as long now and have actively sought friends, and my account still has no activity. No one messages, posts or suggests. Its dead. And don’t give me that “you just don’t understand it” argument. Its supposed to be a social network. Im not required to understand it.

That said, I think google are pitching it wrong. Leave facebook as the social network and pitch g+ as the hobby / technical social network. The one you use when you want to share information on your hobbies and connect to like minded people. That’s a niche I can see them succeeding in.

Stephen Armitage

I don’t think Google have ever said G+ is a Facebook killer, it’s there to provide a social side to search. What do you search for? Mostly Hobbies, Interests, Education, News; that’s G+’s really strong point, connecting with people you may not know but should.

Facebook on the other hand is about connecting with people you actually know, sharing pictures and talking to friends and family. Google know this, it’s a retarded tech media that have seized on it looking a bit like facebook so we must compare it to this. Google need to start fighting this as people are going on expecting something akin to facebook (you can use G+ like this) and go away disappointed because they don’t know the people on there (8 months just isn’t long enough for that).

I think they’ve started to address this with the who to follow page when you sign up https://plus.google.com/getstarted/follow but they could really do with expanding this to make it more intuitive so you can search on your hobbies and interests and find relevant people.

Marvin

@ John Clark what does having a bunch of +1 buttons that G begged publishers to use have to do with G+ being a success or not. I see the +1 things everywhere. Never push them, but yes I see them everywhere

John Clark â–º

Google +1 buttons have been adopted by more publishers faster than any other social media button (30%+ month over month growth by top 1000 publishers?). Who creates the content? Oh yeah the publishers. Who creates 1% of the tweets? Oh yeah the broadcast/publisher types. Okay so Google+ is genius? Ok yep. Bye.

A S

Does FB have something like G+ Hangout and G+ Hangout with Extras? G+ Hangout with Extras is a GREAT tool for having a video conference and sharing documents simultaneously, to give a quick training on using some software or website, etc.

Mathew Ingram

I agree that Hangouts are a great feature, A.S. — but I’m not sure it’s enough to get people to switch to a new network. Thanks for the comment.

Tom Perry

i didn’t give a rat’s ass about google+ since it came out, which is important because i represent the joe six-pack types who aren’t google engineers (apparently the most enthusiastic users of google+).

having worked in silicon valley for almost 20 years, i see a lot of arrogance around successful companies or people who assume that, just because they were successful with their initial product, that they will continue on a winning streak – and that the sycophantic attention they receive from the press or their employees is the universal truth.

google would benefit most by admitting that google+ is a failure – this takes a maturity probably not present in google management, however. young folks who have been successful in everything have an aversion to admitting failure, but the greatest figures in history have all screwed something up, big time.

hey google, come on in to the deep end with the rest of us fuck-ups; the water’s fine

A S

> i represent the joe six-pack types who aren’t google engineers
> having worked in silicon valley for almost 20 years

LOL! Something doesn’t compute here… You probably have more in common with those Google engineers than “joe six-pack types”. Unless you are a janitor or construction worker in Silicon Valley who downs six-packs every evening?

Sol

Do you get the sense that Google+ knows what it wants to be? Because I don’t. (Although in fairness, I posted this comment over there first.)

JON GLUCK

Perfectly sums up this Google debacle:

“But why do users need it? That one is a lot harder to answer, and the short version may be simply that they don’t. While the network has caught on with certain groups of users, including the photographic community and early adopters such as blogger and uber-geek Robert Scoble, there remains little that would compel users who are already attached to Twitter or Facebook to spend large amounts of time on Google+.”

A S

You may not need G+ if you are an FB user and have all your friends/family on FB. I never really used FB. For people like me, G+ works great.

There is also the question of trust. It’s not that I have a great trust of Google. But I do ACTIVELY distrust FB when it comes to personal data. So, there is no question for me on which service I would choose.

Baylor88

It’s worse than that. It feels like big brother…I don’t log into google to use the search utility. I’m sure they can track where I go and what I do but logging in reminds me that I lose my anonymity. I don’t want every site I visit to advertise to me.

SIll

G+ hasn’t even been around for a year. To judge something that has only been around less than a year is silly, especially when you compare it to FB, which has been around for YEARS. Silly silly silly.

Jeff Roberts

Best ‘what’s the point of Google+’ I’ve seen yet.. Nice job, Mathew.. Google doing social is like a cat learning to swim.. It just feels unnatural.. Would be great if they kept Hangouts — which is a gem — and chucked the rest of it

Steve Ardire

Google Semantic Search: Bad for SEO, Good for You http://rww.to/z7Of7e

“The purpose of Google+ is to create a layer of people, places and things – and a network of their relationships – that is visible to Google search. In order to stay ahead of Facebook and Twitter’s interest graphs, Google wants to move toward those kinds of signals for ad relevance. Instead of showing you ads that just match the terms in your search, Google will have to match ads to your search based on your meaning, as well as your context, location, +1s, relationships and so on. The Google+ identity layer also gives semantic search a leg up. With a more explicit understanding of the thing, place or person to which your search query refers, Google knows better what you mean.”

Great synopsis and wish more folks get this new ‘walled garden’ gambit from GOOG to feed their 97% of revenue ad machine ;)

Paul

I like Google+ as a source of information (a richer Twitter feed), but hate the way Google is destroying properties like Picasa to feed it. If they don’t stop the maniacal push with Google+ it could be catastrophic for the nicely designed array of services that so far have bolstered Android.

Kegan Blumenthal

Of course Google+ is only as valuable as the number of users it has. And of course it clearly isn’t what people want..at the moment. Currently, FB is doing everything to satisfy nearly 1B users. Eventually, these users will get bored of using Facebook for so many years and, in my opinion, will fall back onto Google+. Which by that time will be what users want.

Kegan Blumenthal

Of course Google+ is only as valuable as the number of users it has. And of course it clearly isn’t what people want..at the moment. Currently, FB is doing everything to statisfy nearly 1B users. Eventually, these users will get bored of using Facebook for so many years and, in my opinion, will fall back onto Google+. Which by that time will be what users want.

Rurik Bradbury

They are only likely to get bored of FB if they get bored of the people there. It’s a critical mass problem, not the ‘features’ of the platform.

MisterK

If you listen to the forums on tech sites, you’ll see the fans saying “great… I’m glad there’s not a lot of people. Makes it easier to find the good stuff and ignore the cruft”. So what we have is a social network for anti-social people, I guess. The biggest problem that people seem to have with Facebook (the crappy posts) is easily remedied… just remove those people.

Google seems to have made the perfect social network for their core audience, but that’s part of the problem. It’s fiddly (which is great for the Android set), but regular folks like the less fiddly Facebook. We don’t want to make circles and manage settings for each. Not when they have no reason to leave the good party… not when the offer is a nerd party with only a few people.

I think Google pushing the idea of circles put them in a very difficult position. They weren’t just taking on Facebook (my “friends” circle), they are also taking on LinkedIn (work circle). And Facebook does friends better (since so many are already there) and LinkedIn does the work circle better.

I might be proven wrong I guess, but I’m going to declare Google+ a dud. Not dead, though. Google has too much money and there’s too much at stake for them to give up. I won’t be switching anytime soon, though.

Chris Pirillo

Google is more like Blogger than it is like Facebook, and the world just doesn’t need another Blogger more than it doesn’t need another Facebook.

Rurik Bradbury

But but but circles! But but but sharing is broken! [and other Google+ fan outrage]

Marvin

Social is all about the people and the people are on facebook. The design or Googles desire to integrate all of there social services in one big happy social family means nothing. They need to focus on getting as many people using G+ alone before shoving it down the throats of those who aren’t yet interested. Let it grow by making the best product you can. Thats how Facebook did it. No one seen them becoming the $multibillion company that they are. When they had 700m subscribers people applauded that but at the same time had no idea how they planned on monetizing all that. Google search is successful because it is/was a great product. Same with Google Maps. Gmail is pretty good as well. I use all of those because they are individually good products. I don’t use G+ that often not because of Facebook or any other social network, but because until they figure out how to get all my friends and family in it then its useless. But the one thing Facebook does undeniably trump G+ at is friend and family discovery. Of all the people that have sent me friend requests on G+ I know absolutely nine of them and how they got to the point of sending a request to me is unknown (maybe after reading a post or something). On Facebook at the very least they are a friend of a friend etc.

A S

> Let it grow by making the best product you can. Thats how Facebook did it.

LOL! Nice joke there. FB did not become successful because they did ANY feature better than other social networks that used to compete with them. Their interface was cleaner and less trashy than MySpace. Otherwise, there were lots of other networks which were on par with FB.

> until they figure out how to get all my friends and family in it then its useless.

This I agree with. And this is the main reason FB became successful. By a combination of luck, targetting the right demographics at different points of time, etc., they managed to sign up a lot of people.

> Of all the people that have sent me friend requests on G+ I know absolutely nine of them and how they got to the point of sending a request to me is unknown (maybe after reading a post or something). On Facebook at the very least they are a friend of a friend etc.

You don’t understand G+. There is no such things a friend request on G+. The strangers who sent you notifications are “followers”. Like Twitter, where absolute strangers can follow you. Nothing wrong there.

Marvin

I didn’t say they had a feature which was better. Its their overall product which was better. As you said cleaner and less trashy which to me equals better. As far as “followers” go maybe that’s why my friends and family don’t use it. Most of them aren’t interested in having stalkers. Its supposed to be a social network which is why in its current state G+ will never come close to fb. Fb more or less tries to encourage you to be social by putting you around people you know or friends of people you know. Just like real life. Can you imagine someone “following” you in person. That wouldn’t go so well would it?

Marvin

Now that I think about it, this blog has been more social than G+… Hi I’m Marvin

JaideepA

if i can use Apple paradigm, then the Google+ problem can be described as google trying to solve a problem that didnot exist and only to further their profits.

As Steve Jobs, the Saint of All Good Products, would say – Google put profits before products. Sign that it is becoming Microsoft.

Stormy Salvemini

If Google were becoming Mircrosoft they’d be charging people to use Google+. Apple has always put profits above their customers. They were just precise enough to create a line of products that were so user-friendly that they hit a target market that is willing to pay obscene prices for what they feel is “convenience”.

Google and Apple stand at opposite sides of the spectrum with their products and the segment of people they market to. Ever since 2000, markets of consumers are grouped by needs and demands instead of characteristics that are presumed to lead to certain demands. Apple seeks to satisfy a market of people that want something fast, user friendly, convenient, and that requires minimal knowledge about technology. Google, however, seeks to satisfy a market of consumers that wants customization. Google customers want the option to personalize everything. As far as privacy goes, people are not so much worried about how invasive something CAN be. Everyone seems to be okay with transparency.. so long as they can control exactly how transparent their information is.

Mario

Not that old chestnut again, about obscene prices. You cannot purchase any tablet that beats the iPad, any laptop that beats the MacBook Air for much more than Apple is charging.

Apple has always put product over and above everything and were intelligent enough to back it all up with the mot efficient production workflow in history.

Please stop living in 1986.

kosso

If they would just open up an API (which I’m sure Kevin Rose will help to push forward in his new role) then developers will be able to invent all sorts of apps and ways to use G+.

Rurik Bradbury

Copying what Facebook did 5 years ago doesn’t sound like the answer they need…

zealus

That’s exactly what I have been saying, including the discussion on the TechCrunch on the same topic. Give me a way to post my own content effortlessly and I’ll be there. For all G’s efforts to make their services deeply integrated with G+ – I can’t post an image from Picasa gallery to my G+ stream. I have to upload it twice… Forget about crossposting from blog or, God forbid, Facebook or Twitter…

A S

> I can’t post an image from Picasa gallery to my G+ stream. I have to upload it twice…

There is something wrong specifically for you. I don’t have that problem. When I signed up for G+, I was prompted to integrate with Picasa. Since then, anything I post on G+ appears on Picasa and vice versa. This is true of both photos and comments.

Hashim Warren

No one needed Facebook until their friends and family came there.

The demand for humans to connect and be known is infinite. Google is trying to solve the right problem.

evoljennifer

I’m really sick of these articles. I’ve read this one several times before – different authors – different perspectives but really you just don’t have an active network on G+. Some people have this experience, some people do not. I am getting great value from my Google + experience. My friends are there, my photos are there, it’s effortless for me. There IS value for some users.

pasmith

Agreed. I’ve abandoned Twitter for G+ because I get better conversation there. I don’t use Facebook because it’s UI is so awful and I never know what they’ll do with my data.

My only ‘problem’ with G+ is that it’s a bit TOO distracting on most days.

Articles like this just make the author seem uneducated, at least about G+.

Ben

I agree with pasmith. The clean UI and Circles is what first drew me to G+. It’s so much more fun to use and easier to use compared to FaceBook’s clunky and far too busy interface. I’m also a little tired of negative G+ articles. For me, it’s all about choice. If you like G+ then use it, if you don’t, find something else.

Whoisb Whoisbid

That is very mean thing to say about the writer. Of course the writer is educated. I would resent that comment if I was the writer and someone said I was not educated. That is a very mean thing to say. You should apologize.

isaac

the author clearly stated there was SOME activity on G+, i fail to see why you are so offended by someone’s opinion on a social networking site’s progress and activity which is based on observation and factual analysis. sure you might use it a lot, but as the article states, it’s only used an average of roughly a few minutes per month by each user! if you’re sick of reading these articles, why do you insist on reading them? no one said there wasn’t value to be had with the site, just a lack of demand in the saturated social networking market.

asdf

Google needs to provide a way for Facebook users to “convert” to Google+. Meaning, they need to add the capability to transfer all photos and information over to Google+, which has many challenges. I think many Facebook users would convert if this was done for them, rather than re-uploading photos and information, etc.

Sid

“Whenever i use Google+, i feel like i am doing google a favour”-you nailed it! I feel the same way. The thing is that, google+ doesn’t have anything to lure people from facebook.

fjpoblam

Pluzz won, @Sid. Either doing G a favour, or having G+ forced down one’s throat. Webmasters on webmasterworld have griped about an incessant prompt to establish a G+ page on their websites, this prompt appearing on various G webmaster tool pages. G is *too* focused on G+. As a departing Googler suggested, G is now an ad agency more than it is (was) a creative enterprise.

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