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


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 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.



There is nothing to do on there If facebook were just about what other people say and share, Id have died of boredom by now Its the games they keep people coming back — no matter who I hit up on chat 9 times outta ten they were playing something or go off to play something


I agree that the problem isn’t design. Google+ in my opinion has much nicer design and interface than Facebook (and they work hard at avoiding most of those BS commercial messages like “Susan Jones just bought a burger deal at Red Robin” that clutter up your wall). The problem is the expectation that a good, even superior, design should allow it to immediately overtake facebook. People have all their pics and connections on facebook; for this reason, they don’t really want to move that all over to a new site. Google+ already has many converts (myself included), but mostly it will take time for people to sign up, establish their friend networks, begin posting more regularly, etc. Anecdotally I already see that beginning with some folks posting more often than a few months ago. It’s going to take time, but that’s no problem. Google isn’t going anywhere, and if it keeps producing a nicer product than facebook, people may finally reach a critical mass and quickly decide they need it more than they need facebook.


I have not used Facebook since November 2011 and there nothing they have that can lure me back . Anyone that talks down to G+ have ether not used it EVER or have some fear of it becoming as huge as it seems to be well on its way to (50 million users in less than 3/4 of a year). G+ is going to be just as great a success as Chrome & Android and those that prefer to put there fingers in there ears and hum loudly hoping it will disappear while sitting on a sinking ship is in for a great surprise

Jon Barron

Yep – this is all true but as the article suggests, Google+ has to be the way it is, as it needs mass appeal. People have often criticised its lack of innovation relative to sites like Pinterest but those sites would not be big and all-encompassing enough. Google+ is a perfectly good platform, but for it to succeed, Google now needs to acquire / add / integrate more of these niche services within the overall network fast. If it can keep adding functionality, fast it can still win. Hangouts are great. Instant Upload is great as is photo editing (Picnik integration). Circles are cool. It is a good solid platform. Some niches love it (photographers and geeks). If Google can keep innovating and adding niches it can still win long term. I really do like G+, but I have lost faith. Google’s updates and rate of innovation is brilliant, it’s just that these innovations have not been bold enough to date.


Google+ plays an entirely different role for me than Facebook does. My friends are on facebook, and they’re unlikely to move. That’s just fine, I use Google+ to follow interests, for which it is truly excellent. People share circles of posters in different areas (tech news, politics, astronomy, whatever) I add them, and then I immediately get a stream of content that’s interesting to me. I post (hopefully) interesting content, and people follow me. Do I know any of these people personally? Nope, and that matters about as much as the fact that I don’t personally know the editor of a news site I visit…

If you sign up and then just look for your friends and family, I’d imagine it would look like a ghost town, but that’s not at all the best way to engage with it. Following interests I’m rather swamped by the amount of relevant content I get!

I’m also a little sceptical about the 3 minutes a month number bandied around. I’m sure lots of people signed up to see what the fuss was about and never came back, bringing the average time way down. I’d be more interested to see how long people who are active users spend on the site…


Sooner or later, you just realize that using Chrome, and Gmail, and Google Docs, and Google Calendar, and Google Finance, and Google Voice, and Android, and….Google Search…it all sort of ties itself together until you realize that you are an active part of the Google world and feel drawn to Google+ like a moth to the flame that lights the entire world.

Anony mouse

Google just doesn’t get it that people are concerned about privacy. I was initially enthused with Google+, but now I am doing everything to thwart Google getting my data, e.g. not using Chrome, not logging into Google when search or using youtube etc. But if you join Google+, you have no choice — Google with have an open window to climb into your house. Facebook is bad enough. But, with Google’s recent pooling of all its data from its various services, Google now is the evil empire, and we need to watch how we share any data with Google.

Whoisb Whoisbid

I don’t want to use Google+ because I don’t trust Google anymore. First of all they destroy a decade of original work on your websites with google panda and cut your visitors in half. Then they destroy your adsense earnings. Then they cancel you from adsense. Then they invite you to participate in their blog/social network called Google +. Google think we users are stupid and that is where they are dead wrong. Google Plus is a graveyard and some of us would be happy to see the downfall of google because they have become incredibly arrogant over the last few years.


Full api, partner/app integration and migration path from FB. I would jump immediately.


I’m a Uni student, facebook: video call 1to1, shared pictures, chat; G+: 10 people video conference, shared screen to help in software procedures, shared online storage for group assignments to selected people through G+ circle, calendar to annotate assignment dead line and group meetings.

Greg Arnette

Google+ is trying to be too clever for it’s own good. It’s a nightmare trying to manage a gmail G+ identity and a GApps G+ identity in the same browser. Between FB, 2 G+ accounts, Twitter I’m getting spread too thin and think more about reverting back to my blog and syndicating content there from one central location.


It would be cool to share stuff in all our social accounts with just one click!

John Thomas

Matthew Ingram, I noticed that you have over 44,000 followers on Google+ and only 24,000 on Twitter. Is there ‘a lack of demand’ on Twitter?


Don´t think G wants to be Facebook, they just want to add a sharing experience to the user, and I they are on the right path to succeed.


The ghost town analogy is true to a point, but to be honest this analogy could be used across any social channel if you aren’t sufficiently engaging or your network is too small. I think one thing Google+ has over its rivals is the ability to share circles easily; this can be a quick and easy way of growing your network significantly, encouraging far more activity and interactions.

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