The New Google Plus: Will Tighter Focus Lead To Success?
It's been a rough ride for Google+. Columnist Mark Traphagen delves into the early vision for the social network, what has emerged from those changes, and what the new direction will mean for marketers.
I don’t know if, like cats, Google+ has nine lives, because I’ve frankly lost count of how many times it has been pronounced dead. Yet the social network the pundits love to hate is now into its fourth year.
Now, we finally have Google confirmation of what some other Google+ observers and I have been saying for more than a year: The changes we’ve seen in the past year, including the stripping away of some major features, were not a slow killing of Google+. Quite the opposite — they were preparations for its reinvention as a tighter, more focused product which might finally have a unique appeal that could attract new users. (See my own predictions about the future of Google+ from May 2014 here on Marketing Land: “Why Google+ Will Not Die (But May Change).”
In this column I will:
- review the original grand experiment behind Google+ (now being abandoned)
- examine the clues over the past year that something new was in the works
- and finally cover the first hints at what that new direction might be
I’ll conclude with the implications of this new direction for the future success of Google+ and what that means for marketers.
And since it has been popular to call Google+ a “ghost town,” I couldn’t resist having three ghosts visit this post (with apologies to Mr. Dickens).
The Ghost Of Google+ Past
The Gundotra Vision
The story of Google+ as it is now emerging is in many ways the tale of two very different visions for how Google should approach social media: Vic Gundotra’s “Google+ IS Google” vs. Bradley Horowitz’s “Interest Based Social Experience.”
Gundotra, former senior vice president of Social for Google, was not only the father of Google+, he was the architect of an entirely new, brash and bold vision for what Google should be.
In his book “How Google Works,” Google Chairman of the Board Eric Schmidt calls Gundotra’s pet project “one of the most ambitious bets in the company’s history.” Schmidt reveals that social wasn’t even part of Gundotra’s job description (At the time, he was head of mobile). But Gundotra was seriously concerned that the rise of social media, and Facebook in particular, might leave Google in the dust. Along with Horowitz, he cooked up what became known as “Project Emerald Sea,” which eventually became the public Google+ revealed in late June 2011.
In brief, what I am calling the Gundotra Vision was this: For Google, social should not be an add-on but should be at the heart of almost everything Google does. I don’t think he was wrong in the fundamentals of his vision — perhaps just in his particular execution.
That is, he was correct in his assertion that social is becoming the primary way people engage with the Web. Therefore, it made sense for all of Google to become more social-friendly, to be more closely tied into social in some way.
But the Gundotra Vision went beyond just socializing all of Google. It was also about the importance of identity. His scheme for Google+ profiles as the key for using all Google products came along just as Google was realizing how much power a more personalized Web experience could bring.
Identity is important to Google on multiple levels:
- Personalization. A more customized experience increases user satisfaction.
- Data. Knowledge of individual preferences and habits allows better targeting of advertising (and other advantages).
- Entities. Google’s Knowledge Graph and semantic search benefit from being able to identify individuals as entities connected to other entities.
So the second component of the Gundotra Vision was making the Google+ profile the key to the door to all things Google. The user would gain ease of access to Google products and services, along with increased personalization and customization, in exchange for giving over to Google her true identity, access to personal information and the ability to track Web behavior more accurately.
Gundotra was able to sell Larry Page on his vision, to the extent that Page promoted Gundotra to a new position, vice president of Social, reporting directly to Page. Page even tied bonuses across Google to the success of Google+ in its inaugural year.
From Carrot to Stick
When Google+ first came out, the approach to getting people to create profiles was more carrot than stick. A limited beta invitation-only period increased demand. Unique features such as Circles and Hangouts made Google+ seem special. Google users were invited to “upgrade” to Google+.
But as time passed, and it came time to actually execute on the vision of Google+ profiles becoming the essential key to all Google doors, carrot inexorably turned into stick. Having a Google+ profile went from being an optional “upgrade” to one’s Google experience to a virtual requirement. Users began to complain about feeling forced into signing up for Google+, whether they wanted to or not.
Most famously, this came to a head when Google decided to convert YouTube comments to Google+ comments and require a Google+ profile to comment to or publish on YouTube. The YouTube community erupted vehemently and vociferously. For many, this move helped reinforce a growing perception that Google, for years one of the most beloved of major brands, was becoming arrogant and far too controlling.
I won’t go into detail here about the other problems Google+ experienced during the Gundotra years, but chief among them were the perception that Google+ was a “ghost town” used by almost no one and its lack of a unique value proposition. More about the latter problem in the “Ghost of Google+ Future” section below.
Assessing the Gundotra Vision
Before I move on, though, I want to make some brief comments about the Gundotra Vision and Gundotra’s stewardship over the early years of Google+.
While, as we will see below, Google has largely repudiated the Gundotra Vision and started the process of dismantling it, I am not among those who view Vic Gundotra as a failure. I’ll admit my views may be prejudiced somewhat by the personal interactions I had with the man. I found him to be very approachable and sincerely passionate about Google+ and its ability to affect people’s lives. He believed in what he was doing, and not just because he thought it was a good business move for Google.
On a larger scale, though, I see what Gundotra did (as well as Page’s embracing of it) as an example of corporate entrepreneurism at its finest. It was a grand vision and a bold one, and though by some measures it “failed,” it accomplished what all entrepreneurial “failures” should: It taught valuable lessons that could in the long run make Google even better than it would have been without them.
The Ghost Of Google+ Present
The Besbris Interregnum
Though I’m calling this section the Ghost of Google+ Present to fit with my Dickensian metaphor, it will really be about Google+’s transitional period. That is, the time from the departure of Gundotra up to Horowitz’s announcement on July 27.
Gundotra’s sudden departure from Google on April 24, 2014, took everyone by surprise. To my knowledge, it has never been revealed whether he was ousted, voluntarily departed, or (as I think most likely) left as part of some mutual agreement that his time at Google needed to end. Google+ engineer Dave Besbris replaced him, but without the same title or direct reporting access to Page.
It is now clear in hindsight that the Besbris term was little more than an interregnum, a transitional period overseen by a benevolent caretaker. For many active Google+ users, the most abrupt immediate change was the absence of Gundotra’s hands-on participation in the network.
Gundotra was accessible to the community in a way no other head of a major social network has been. He frequently posted news and updates about Google+. He actually responded to user questions and comments. He even commented on and plussed the posts of other regular users. Gundotra was also, at least in the early years of Google+, accessible to the press, and he made many public appearances. In contrast, Besbris granted only one interview during his entire term and only posted personal photographs on Google+.
The biggest change, however, was that during the Besbris year, there was (almost) no change. Under Gundotra, Google+ users had become used to fairly regular announcements of new features on the platform. But under Besbris, the few changes were relatively minor in comparison.
The only significant news during that time was the fact that Google+, despite the predictions from most of the tech press and bloggers, soldiered on. Besbris, in his Recode interview, and a few other Google spokespeople, continued to insist that Google remained happy with Google+ and had big plans for its future.
Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
The first real hint that Google wasn’t just blowing smoke about big changes to come for Google+ came in a Forbes interview with Google’s “product czar,” Sundar Pichai. First, Pichai disputed the notion that Google+ was a flop. He remarked that while most people view Google+ just as a social network, it was also the vehicle “to ensure users were signed in to its services with ‘a common identity across our products.'” It was in that latter capacity that Google+ provided the most value to Google.
But the “stop the presses” comment by Pichai in the interview was his announcement that some of Google+’s component parts (Photos and Hangouts in particular) would likely be “broken off” and become their own products. “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,” Pichai said.
Incredibly, some saw this as more evidence for their foregone conclusion that Google was in the process of shutting down Google+. This despite the fact that Pichai had included what he called “the Google+ Stream” as one of “three important areas” with photos and communications (emphasis mine). I published my refutation of the idea that the product separation meant Google+ was being killed here on Marketing Land last April.
In addition to what I said in that post, I’d add now that what is happening with Google+ simply doesn’t fit the typical Google scenario for shutting down a product. This is important because one of the primary arguments put forth by supporters of the “walking dead” theory of Google+ is Google’s track record of discarding products with little sentimentality. Google Reader, Buzz, Wave and other products are trotted out as witnesses for the prosecution.
Such an argument misses one crucial fact: In every case where Google has killed a product, the product went into a period of prolonged and near-total neglect before it was finally shut down. This has never been the case with Google+. Even during the caretaker year of Dave Besbris, the Google+ team continued to make improvements and refinements, albeit much smaller ones than those made under Gundotra’s headship.
In my opinion, the “breakup” announced by Pichai should be seen not as the death knell for Google+, but rather as the early signs of its planned resurrection, or perhaps reincarnation would be a better term, as we shall see.
The Horowitz Ascendency
The next major piece in what we now know to be the grand redesign of Google+ was the appointment of Bradley Horowitz to replace Dave Besbris as the head of all things social at Google. This was more significant than most people realized at the time for a couple of reasons.
- Horowitz was intimately involved with the creation and hatching of Project Emerald Seas, and upon the unveiling of Google+ was Gundotra’s right-hand man for the new network. It’s probably safe to say that almost no one in the world outside of Gundotra understands Google+ as intimately as Horowitz.
- Horowitz’s announcement confirmed what Sundar Pichai had laid out in his Forbes interview: Photos and Streams were now separate products under his headship. (In his more recent announcement, Horowitz clarified that he is head over what he calls “SPS”: Streams, Photos and Sharing.”)
Personally, the appointment of Horowitz excited me for the future of Google+. I remembered being impressed by his interviews about Google+ in the network’s early years, even thinking at the time that he understood and articulated some of the unique values of Google+ better than Gundotra. Horowitz is a brilliant and creative engineer and product manager. It is highly unlikely that Google would waste such talent on a product it was planning to kill off.
Horowitz further confirmed both his and Google’s commitment to Google+ in an interview with Steven Levy on Medium in late May 2015, after the official unveiling of Google Photos as its own standalone product. About Google+, Horowitz said:
[blockquote]Three and a half years into this journey, we’re looking at what the users are telling us Google Plus is good for, and doubling down on those uses. For instance, one particular use-case on Google Plus is people aligning around common interests. If I’m interested in astronomy and I want to meet other people interested in astronomy, we think we have a good solution — Collections, a new feature that we launched just two weeks ago. It’s the first in a series of pivots. We’re also moving aside the things that either belong as independent products, like photos, or eliminating things that we think aren’t working.[/blockquote]
Notice two things in that quotation that we’ll come back to in the next section:
- They are “doubling down” on the strengths of Google+ (and willing to shed its weaknesses).
- The focus will be on “aligning around common interests.”
The Ghost Of Google+ Future
To those of us paying careful attention, it was clear by now that far from being put on death watch, Google+ was in transition toward what might be a major reincarnation.
That reincarnation was publicly launched with the July 27 publication of “Everything in Its Right Place” on the official Google blog. The post, written by Bradley Horowitz himself, admitted that while Google got “certain things right” with Google+, there were “a few choices…we’ve needed to rethink.”
Horowitz outlined two major changes users could expect “over the next few months”:
- Google+ will become more focused around “shared interests.” The recently introduced Collections feature was touted as an example of this new focus.
- Google+ accounts will no longer be required in order to sign in and use Google services outside of Google+. In the coming months, users will be able to create Google accounts that, unlike Google+ profiles, will be completely private and invisible to other users. The first implementation of this change will be on YouTube, where (effective immediately) YouTube comments will no longer appear on Google+. In the coming months, users will be allowed to publish and comment on YouTube without a Google+ account.
I may address the implications of the retraction of Google+ accounts as the default Google sign-in in future writing, but for the purposes of this article, I’d like to concentrate on the new focus for the network: shared interests.
The Interest Graph and Google+
Within its first year, many of us early adopters were already discussing what we saw as a major problem for the new social network: lack of a unique value proposition. That is, what did Google+ have to offer that users couldn’t get elsewhere? Why should social media users adopt yet another social network?
Those questions seemed hyper-critical in a social media world increasingly dominated by Facebook. By 2011, for many people, Facebook had already become the default social network. Pretty much everyone you wanted to connect with was there, and you could do pretty much everything you’d want to do on a social network.
So along came Google+, looking pretty much like a Google version of Facebook. Web comic XKCD captured well the attitude expressed by many, aside from the “must try everything” early adopter types:
Google+’s one early attempt at differentiating itself was its promotion of the concept of Circles. Circles are Google+’s way for users to organize their followers. The promoted value was that a user could fine-tune her stream, segmenting people she followed into specific groups. For example, sometimes a user might want to interact with or post only to family members, or to friends, or to co-workers.
While Circles were indeed quite innovative, allowing a degree of control over one’s social network not available anywhere else at the time, it quickly became apparent that this was not something users (beyond geeky power users) were clamoring for. Organizing your following into categories was just way more work than the average user wanted to do.
So once the early adoption shine wore off, Google+ really provided little incentive for the average user to become active there. If you can already do most of what you could do on Google+ on Facebook, and if your friends and family are already on Facebook (and not Google+), why should you switch?
In contrast, those of us in the community of active and enthusiastic Google+ users quickly realized that the network did provide a unique value proposition, even if it was one that the Google+ creators seemed to ignore at the time. We discovered that Google+ was incredibly useful as a tool to discover and connect with new people who shared our interests. Personally, I can say that many of my most useful and valuable online relationships were formed on Google+ and that none of those people, many of whom have become true “real life” friends, were known to me from real life or anywhere else online.
Basically, I’m saying that it took Google+ four years to wake up to what many of us knew from the earliest months — that Google+’s chief strength was as a discovery engine for connecting across a shared interest graph. The problem was, for most of that time we had to make those connections through our own efforts and by sheer chance. We didn’t even have Communities until a year and a half after the start of Google+.
Many of us began to discuss what we thought of as a missed opportunity for Google. With its vast algorithmic and computational powers, why couldn’t Google automate and hyper-boost shared interest graph connections?
They have our profiles. Through our profiles they know what we post about and share, what we engage with, what communities we participate in, and now what Collections we create and engage with. When we’re logged in to our Google+ accounts, they can even track what we visit on the Web and search for on Google Search. With all of that data, why couldn’t they build something awesome that would help us discover and connect with people all over the world who share our interests?
In any event, the important thing for right now is that it looks like Google+ may finally have a focus, and even more important, the beginnings of a unique value proposition for social media users. More on that in my concluding section.
Bringing Artificial Intelligence to the Interest Graph
I’m going now to go out on a speculative limb and predict that an automated interest graph discovery engine is exactly where Google+ is headed next.
We already have, of course, the declaration from Horowitz and others that Google+ will now focus on “an interest-based social experience.” We also have the introduction of Collections, the first major new Google+ feature in over a year. Collections allows users to create groups of posts and shares around specific topics. Moreover, other users can follow that topical collection whether or not they follow its creator or her other collections.
That’s significant. For the first time (other than Pinterest), I can tailor a social network stream around topics rather than people. For me, that was the failure of Circles. I might follow a stranger, John, because he has a passion for New Orleans Second Line bands (which I share). So I put John in my Second Line circle. But when I go to that circle, I see all of John’s posts, not all of which will be about Second Line music. However, if John creates a Second Line Collection, I can just follow that. Now John is truly valuable to me, because I’m seeing the content from him I really wanted.
So Collections is an important keystone to Horowitz’s new vision for an interest-based social network. But as I said above, I believe the next step will be to take that into the area of personalized automation using artificial intelligence.
The problem now is that John may create an awesome Second Line connection, but how would I know about it, unless I stumbled upon it or someone I already know shares about it?
What if Google knew that I’m passionate about Second Line bands, knew that John was curating a great collection about them and brought us together?
Why am I connecting that idea with such a far-out concept as artificial intelligence? Here’s why.
In January of this year, in another Steven Levy interview on Medium, Demis Hassabis, co-founder of the artificial intelligence project DeepMind, discussed what his team was up to now that they had joined Google. Levy asked Hassabis what specific improvements DeepMind was working on for Google. Hassabis responded:
[blockquote]We still feel quite new to Google, but there’s tons of things we could apply parts of our technology to. We’re looking at various aspects of search. We’re looking at stuff like YouTube recommendations. We’re thinking about making Google Now better in terms of how well it understands you as an assistant and actually understands more about what you’re trying to do. We’re looking at self-driving cars and maybe helping out with that.[/blockquote]
Notice that much of that list has to do with helping better connect you with relevant information and content. And now the kicker, a statement that went by so fast I’ve heard few others comment on it. Hassabis is asked how soon we might see any of this implemented.
[blockquote]In six months to a year’s time we’ll start seeing some aspects of what we’re doing embedded in Google Plus, natural language and maybe some recommendation systems.[/blockquote]
Did you catch that? The only specific Google product mentioned for DeepMind integration is Google+.
Now, of course, Hassabis doesn’t elaborate on how DeepMind would be “embedded in Google Plus,” but if the primary focus of Google+ is now on the shared interest graph, where better to apply this?
We’re now into that “six months to a year” period from when Hassabis made that statement. I can’t point to any specific visible implementation in Google+ yet, but anyone who follows Google closely knows better than to hold them tightly to any stated deadlines. Furthermore, it is possible that some beginnings of this implementation may already be in play in ways that are not yet perceptible to users.
In any case, it will be interesting to see how Google develops this new interest-based focus for Google+. And as I said, it’s just good for the network to finally have a focus that might make it stand out and actually have a useful purpose for people who have ignored it up to now.
Implications for Google
Even though Google has certainly had a rough ride with Google+, I think it’s safe by now to say that they remain committed to it and have no plans for the foreseeable future to shelve it.
Undeniably, it is nothing like Gundotra’s original vision for it. Yes, he was right that Google needed to embrace social, but the lesson learned is that it needed to be done in the way users wanted to do it. The fact that the new Photos app from day one has easy, direct sharing to Facebook and Twitter (along with Google+) is an indication that they got that message.
At the same time, it is also clear that Google+ has had real value for Google, even if it’s not visible or apparent to its critics. Every sign from Google is the exact opposite of what it has historically done to products it plans to kill.
The Google+ experiment is also another indication that Google still abides by its value of “failing fast.” That is, create bold and innovative experiments, see what users do with them, and then further develop the successes and cut the failures. In the “fail fast” playbook, nothing is ever really a failure, because you can learn lessons from every failed product.
However, Google+ appears to be a middle ground, or third way, in that playbook. Google+ shows that an experiment that failed in some of its goals can still lead to a (potentially) successful product with a tighter and better focus on what works for users.
Implications for Marketers
Google+ has always been a challenge and a conundrum for marketers. In the early days, many felt that because it was from Google and the company was pushing it so heavily, they ought to at least try it.
There were also many (mostly unfounded, in my opinion) vague promises from online pundits of “easy SEO benefits” from posting on Google+. Despite some early isolated big brand success case studies from Google (haven’t seen one from them in a long time), as well as anecdotal success stories from a small business here or there, most businesses gave up on Google+ fairly quickly.
I helped some business clients build some success by using Google+ to drive more traffic to their sites via personalized search, but the strategies took an investment of time and effort that most businesses weren’t willing to sustain.
So does the new direction and focus of Google+ offer any new opportunities to which marketers and businesses should pay heed?
For now, the opportunities in personalized search remain. That is, if you can get Google+ users to circle your brand page and actively post there on topics for which they search, your posts can get promoted on page one of those users’ Google searches. For more on that strategy, see my post “Google Plus Search Power: Personalized Punch for Your Target Market.”
However, as I noted above, such a strategy can be difficult to implement, as it may be hard to find real potential customers who are active on Google+ or to attract non-users to become active on your Page. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that Google won’t remove this search personalization in the future.
What about the new shared interest graph focus, though? Does that offer any opportunities for marketing?
It very well may, but I think those opportunities will be more in the area of branding than in direct sales or promotion.
I would draw a direct analogy to brands that are successful on Instagram. At first blush, Instagram seems to offer few opportunities for marketing. You can’t even create links on your posts! But brands that have found success there have done so by posting creative, fun and intriguing images that Instagram users love. When done correctly, such engagement helps people keep positive associations with the brand and keeps that brand top-of-mind when it comes time for purchasing decisions.
Google+’s interest graph may prove to have a similar value for brands. If brands can create interesting Collections that people actually will want to follow, the same branding and reputation benefits may follow. This is something I will be watching closely and experimenting with in the coming months.
Another thing to consider: This may be a rare second chance to get an early adopter benefit. It’s too early to predict whether Horowitz’s focus on Google+ as an interest connector will pay off in a surge of new and active users. But if it does, those who already have active and useful collections of interesting and relevant posts may gain an advantage others will find harder to duplicate.
What do you think about these changes at Google+? Will they be enough to save the network? Better yet, could they actually spark a new resurgence among social media users? Do you see any opportunities being opened for business and marketing with this new focus?