The state of Google+: The whole is not worth the sum of its parts

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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.

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