Google Plus Is Small, But Still Not Dead Yet
Despite the "near death" rumors, Google+ still has plenty of life left, and Google has no current plans to dismember it, believes columnist Mark Traphagen.
This is the column I never wanted to have to write again.
Almost a year ago I published here “Why Google Plus Will Not Die (But May Change).” That article was in response to the latest (at that time) wave of “Google Will Kill Google+!” posts that sprang up after the departure of Vic Gundotra, the “father” of Google+.
Certainly now I can declare a win for me on that one. Google+ is still very much with us nearly a year after the departure of its founder. In my post back then I allowed that the company might kill the brand name (“Google+”) without ending the social network, but it didn’t even do that. Google+ is still Google+.
But that hasn’t stopped tech journalists and bloggers from once again declaring the soon-to-be death of Google+. The latest wave of such posts and articles came after the announcement that Bradley Horowitz was taking over the reins from Gundotra successor Dave Besbris.
I’d like to address the rumors generated out of that changeover, as well as some findings from a recent study of public posting on Google+, and offer my opinion on what this all means for the future of Google+.
Latest Google+ Is Near Death Rumors
The latest round of terminal proclamations over Google+ center around a perception that Google is going to dismantle the network into separate parts, so that there will no longer really be a Google+ social network.
Both articles were based primarily on rumors that sprang up as a result of Horowitz’s Google+ post announcing that he was taking over Google’s “Photos and Streams products.”
For many, this was the first time they had heard “Photos and Streams” being described as separate “products.” This led Kim, Wright and others to leap to the conclusion that Google+ was being “split up,” and further conclude that the social network as we’ve known it is on the chopping block.
Many observers correlated that announcement with a Forbes interview with Sundar Pichai, Google’s “product czar.” When asked about Google+, Pichai was quoted as saying: “I think increasingly you’ll see us focus on communications, photos and the Google+ Stream as three important areas, rather than being thought of as one area.”
The Forbes reporter stated that Pichai said that Hangouts and Photos “may soon be separated from the main product [Google+],” but he didn’t present that as a direct quote from Pichai.
At this point, there are some questions we ought to ask before leaping to the conclusion that Google+ as we know it is about to be dismembered, or even axed altogether:
1. Did Sundar Pichai actually say that Hangouts and Photos will be separated from Google+, or was that the reporter’s interpretation?
2. Even if Pichai did say that, did he actually mean that Hangouts and Photos would become inaccessible from within Google+ (or “the Stream”)?
3. Does thinking of the Stream, Photos and Communications (Hangouts and chat, I assume) as separate products necessarily mean that Google+ as the public sees it is being dismembered or killed?
Here are my responses to each of those:
1. We’ll probably never know exactly what Pichai said, since no transcript of the interview has been released. It is possible the reporter read the “separation” into remarks Pichai made about the product areas, but we can’t know.
2. I don’t think it’s justifiable to say that even if Pichai did say Hangouts and Photos would be “separated” from the “main product” that means they will be removed. In other words, Hangouts and Photos could be marketed as apps on their own, while still being integrated into Google+ for Google+ users.
In fact, for at least Hangouts, that’s almost already the case. Hangouts have existed as a standalone app for quite some time now, on both iOS and Android, and a few months ago Google allowed use of Hangouts without a Google+ account. (You still need a Google+ account to start a Hangout On Air.)
3. Googlers speaking of the Stream, Photos and Communications as distinct product areas does not necessarily mean they will be split apart with a hard barrier between each. In fact, as you’ll see below, we have confirmation from Google that splitting the user interface completely is not in the company’s present plans.
As I teased in answer No. 3 above, we don’t even have to speculate about any of this. In this Google+ post, Google+ Chief Architect Yonatan Zunger responded to a question about a news article that claims the platform is to be split up:
There you have it. I’ll resist making any references to the oral cavities of horses.
In fact, there are references to Google+ proper as “the Stream” (and distinct from “Photos” and “Hangouts”) going back as far as 2013. Furthermore, for some time now it’s been the way Google+ labels the social news feed for Google+ pages.
So there’s really nothing new to see here. Just a couple of Googlers using internal designations in public forums.
Is Google+ A Ghost Town?
The other line of reasoning common to bloggers and journalists declaring Google+ destined for the virtual morgue is the assumption that it’s a ghost town.
I always have to wonder if anyone who says that is even trying to be real. A true ghost town is a deserted place — abandoned buildings and tumbleweeds. Anyone actually active on Google+ can tell you it’s far from that.
Every day I’m involved in dozens of stimulating conversations on Google+ with people from all over the world. There are huge, enthusiastically active communities, both public and private. Is it Facebook? Not even close (but what else is?). Yet there is plenty of life there.
But how big is it? Google hasn’t released any numbers in well over a year now, and, of course, that has fueled the speculation about it being dead or dying.
Real Numbers On Public Posting
At Stone Temple Consulting, we decided to examine for ourselves the data that is publicly accessible. Our CEO, Eric Enge, looked at over 500,000 profiles chosen randomly from Google+’s site maps to see how many had ever posted publicly, and how much they had posted in public.
You can read the complete results for yourself, so I’ll just share here the bottom line: Enge found that about 10 percent of the surveyed profiles had ever posted publicly. Given that there are approximately 2.2 billion Google+ profiles, he extrapolated the numbers from his random sample to estimate that about 212 million profiles had some public posts.
Now, it is very, very important to keep in mind that these numbers are estimates of public posting only. Posting in public is only one kind of activity on a social network, and the 90:9:1 rule (the ratio of lurkers to commenters to public content creators) suggests that it is the rarest of the possible activities.
According to that principle, on social networks for every person who generates public content, there are nine people who participate but never create (on Google+ these would be people commenting or +1’ing posts) and 90 who lurk (view content but never participate).
So the actual “active” number of Google+ users is almost certainly many times the number of public posters shown in our study. Remember, that this rule holds true across all social networks. When Twitter or Facebook publish “active user” numbers, it’s just as valid to ask how many of those are actually posting content in public, and how many are more passive users.
In addition, many Google+ users point out that Google+ is “private by default.” Its main original selling point was the ability to post to selected “circles,” groups of users arranged by the poster. When someone posts to any of their circles, but does not add “Public” to the share, that post is entirely private. No one else can see it (except, of course, Google).
So it very well could be that a great deal of the activity on Google+ takes place as posts to circles or in private communities. Third-party studies (like ours) and tech journalists can’t see any of that activity. But Google can, and I highly suspect that it is a large amount of private activity that, from Google’s point of view, makes Google+ very much alive and valuable.
Other Key Points
Let me conclude with several other points of which Google+ critics seem ignorant, whether willfully or unintentionally:
• Value of Identity Data. Via Google+, Google succeeded in getting many hundreds of millions of people to create Google profiles. This means Google has greater insight into the identities and connections of a much greater number of people than it did in the past.
And when those people use the Web logged in (for a Google service or third-party login), Google can track all of their online behavior. That builds Google’s bottom line, as it can better target ads for those people.
• Value of Business Data. Through Google+, Google also incentivized businesses to create and verify profiles. Through its Google+ My Business program, Google is able to help these businesses do what it takes to be found more easily in search.
Of course, Google also gets more accurate data about them as well.
• More Than the Stream. While we may tend to think of Google+ as posts we see on plus.Google.com (the “Stream”), Google considers Google+ to be much more than that.
As far as Google is concerned, people doing almost anything while logged into their G+ account are “using Google+.” That might sound like fudging, but it’s really not if you understand the first two points above.
• The Stream Is More Than Public. The data for our study comes only from public activity on plus.Google.com. There is likely a lot more happening in the stream that is posted either to circles only, or in private communities.
We don’t have access to that data. And, of course, as with any social network, there are probably far more “lurkers” (people looking at content who never post themselves) than content creators.
• Not Facebook Doesn’t Mean Fail. Part of the reason many people see Google+ as failed is the expectation that it was supposed to be Google’s “Facebook killer.” Obviously, if that were ever the goal, it wasn’t achieved.
But does anyone consider Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram as failures? It’s entirely possible that Google+ has a comparable number of active users to those networks. If so, it is then a completely viable, if second-tier, social network.
• Still Being Developed. While it’s been awhile since we’ve seen any updates as big as Communities or Hangouts, anyone who uses Google+ can tell you that new features are being added all the time, and we hear rumors of others still under development.
Google wouldn’t be investing in improvements if it were planning to kill off Google+. The other oft-cited Google products that were ended (Reader, Knol, etc.) all showed periods of neglect before they were shut down.
As I said at the outset of this post, I come neither to bury nor to praise Google+. However, I do hope that what I have presented here serves as a balance to what I view as a lot of confirmation-biased speculation about the future of Google+.
Could Google+ still fail? Could it still be rebranded or dismembered? Absolutely. But I don’t see any real evidence that either of those are Google’s current plans.