Google+, the search giant’s social network, launched in 2011 with an invitation-only testing phase and the lofty goal of becoming Google’s answer to Facebook.
Today, although Google says the social network has 540 million users, reports about its demise have been widespread. Earlier this year, The New York Times called Google+ “a ghost town” where users aren’t active. Then, in late April, Vic Gundotra, the executive who led the development of Google+, announced his resignation from Google following eight years at the company.
Gundotra’s departure, along with the reassignment of some of the Google+ team to the Android division, spurred speculation about what’s next. TechCrunch called Google+ the “walking dead” and predicted that the search company’s social network will likely either shut down or change from being a discrete product to a platform connecting Google accounts. Google has denied any change in strategy following Gundotra’s exit.
Whatever the future holds, experts at Wharton agree that Google+ didn’t turn out to be the Facebook killer that the company initially hoped for. “I think people had trouble understanding exactly what Google+ was supposed to be,” says Wharton marketing professor Eric Bradlow. According to Wharton legal studies and business ethics professor Kevin Werbach, Google+ had a stiff challenge if it hoped to match Facebook. “Facebook is really good at being Facebook. And it has managed to keep innovating at a rate that’s quite impressive for a company of its size,” he notes. “For [a competing] social network, the question is always what niche it fills that the existing ones don’t. The network effects are simply too strong once a service like Facebook achieves critical mass.”
Google+ never generated the enthusiasm, word of mouth or growth rate that Facebook enjoys, Werbach and others point out. Shawndra Hill, operations and information management professor at Wharton, notes that “social networks have more value if more people use them.”
“For [a competing] social network, the question is always what niche it fills that the existing ones don’t.”— Kevin Werbach
Ultimately, Google gained additional social media users by requiring account holders of the company’s popular YouTube video site to have a Google+ account in order to post comments. Users of Google’s email service, Gmail, were issued Google+ profiles as well. Google’s 540 million active user figure includes what Google terms “in stream” usage where, for example, a customer in Gmail may click on an icon to see Google+ content without ever going to the social network site.
If You Can’t Beat Them …
At launch, Google+ had a few features that differentiated it from other social media players. For instance, it offered larger photos and a cleaner layout than Facebook — although the latter quickly matched those elements. “Google wisely chose not to make Google+ an exact Facebook clone. Some of the things they’ve done, like Hangouts [a collaborative video service], have actually been quite successful,” says Werbach. “And there is a decent number of people who use Google+ regularly for much deeper and more intense conversations than you typically find on Facebook.” However, “that’s just not enough to move the needle at businesses that are the scale of Facebook and Google,” he adds.
Furthermore, as noted above, features that were initially unique to Google+ were quickly copied by rivals, Wharton experts point out. The pace at which Facebook, Google, Twitter and others emulate each other’s functionality appears to be increasing. Recently, Twitter launched a new profile page that looks similar to those of Facebook and Google+. Meanwhile, Facebook adopted Twitter’s “hash tag” system for highlighting and organizing content. “All of these companies are trying to copy features from each other to make sure they are keeping attention in house,” says Hill. “If these companies can keep their user bases strong, they can get more advertising dollars.”
In such an environment, it’s no wonder that Google+ struggled to differentiate itself from Facebook and Twitter, Hill and others suggest. “There was no motivation to switch,” says Hill. “It wasn’t clear what Google+ could do better than Facebook or Twitter. Google didn’t think through what would be exciting and new and then leverage its users. That approach should have been the strategy, but instead Google wound up forcing people to use Google+.”
“All of these companies are trying to copy features from each other to make sure they are keeping attention in house.” –Shawndra Hill
Google+ didn’t catch on because “it is not necessary,” says Eric Clemons, Wharton operations and information management professor. “Facebook already has much greater scale. If I want followers, I go to Twitter. If I want a business network, I go to LinkedIn. If I want a friend network, I go to Facebook.”
“Despite having many superior features, I don’t think [Google+] was considered as user friendly and visually appealing as Facebook,” Bradlow adds. “Once the product got off to a slow start, it started to sink under its own weight.”
Peter Fader, a marketing professor at Wharton, says he isn’t a fan of Google+, but suggests that the measure of success for a new initiative should not be that it defeats Facebook. “It doesn’t have to be the case that everyone has to be number one. There’s no shame in being a smaller player if it can make a return.”
An argument can be made that Google+ has already generated returns for Google, Fader adds. Before Google+, the search giant didn’t have a database of its users’ names and identities, something Facebook has. By connecting Google+ to other services, Google can better target and identify its customer base. Google+ as a standalone site isn’t much, but by more seamlessly integrating it with other properties, there could be dividends down the road,” Fader notes. “To the extent that Google+ is seen as part of an overall ecosystem, it might help the Google portfolio, even if it isn’t seen” by a large number of people.
Hill suggests that Google+ could become a front-end way to access email and communicate. “Google+ seems to be a nice interface for things like checking email, seeing content and photos,” she says.
Indeed, the Wharton faculty members interviewed for this story generally agree that integration and communication — instead of replicating Facebook — should be the overall goal for Google+. “Google+ … serves as the glue that pulls together the disparate web of Google services. It also gives Google leverage to keep users inside its walled garden. Both of those are part of a long game that is strategically important to the company,” says Werbach.
“To the extent that Google+ is seen as part of an overall ecosystem, it might help the Google portfolio, even if it isn’t seen.” –Peter Fader
However, on the consumer side, such integration is not necessarily a good outcome, warns Clemons. “Google is great for search and for Gmail, but [consumers] pay a significant penalty in terms of privacy. People misunderstand what the [integration] truly costs them. But they are starting to fear Google’s abuse of privacy.”
Parts Greater Than the Sum
Werbach notes that Google+ could have other intangible benefits for Google. “Google+ is technically impressive. For example, what Google does with photo editing on the fly is amazing. It’s important for Google to have an outlet for some of its immense technical talent, which isn’t invisible to users as core infrastructure,” he says. “Google has the luxury of a ridiculously profitable core business and a long-term mindset to change the world. So there are many things it invests in that don’t generate a clear [return on investment] over a time horizon of a few years or more. There’s no reason to give up on Google+.”
One approach would be for Google+ to deconstruct its social network into useful parts, Fader and others suggest. For instance, Facebook has been moving selected features into separate, stand-alone applications, such as Facebook Messenger, and buying companies like WhatsApp and Instagram and running them independently. Google built Google+ by aggregating tools such as Blogger and Picasa. But whether Google can succeed by deconstructing Google+ largely depends on whether the company can reposition its social network into a different market that doesn’t include Facebook. Fader says one option would be to create business uses for tools like Google Hangouts, which emerged from Google+. “Google+ could benefit from the natural sharing that’s a result of using products like search, Google Drive, Gmail and Maps — which people are naturally doing already.”
According to Werbach, Google is in a strong position should there be a seismic shift in the social networking market in terms of how users access their networks. “The big opportunity for Google is if the social networking experience undergoes a shift from desktop to mobile to ubiquitous. Google is building out things like Google Now [a personal assistant application], Google Glass and even self-driving cars — which promise to track and anticipate our activities rather than wait for us to sit down and post a status update,” he notes. “If that’s the future, Google is in a position to usurp Facebook’s dominance in social networking. I would build Google+ as the connective tissue for the next stage of connected technology, rather than trying too hard to win the last war.”