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Breakup of Google+: “Its not you Google+, its me!”

We’ve all been there at least once – the person you’ve been seeing on a casual basis says over coffee: “I’m breaking up with you”. To their dismay you reply: “I didn’t know we were going out”. It feels a little like that hearing about the breakup of Google+. Most of us never got emotionally involved enough in the platform to really care.

Google has recently announced changes to Google+ which will mean separating out different features of the platform. This decision seems to be the death knell to Google’s latest foray into social media, but it is also a reflection of how the social media landscape has changed over the last four years.

Google+ launch

Google+ was unveiled in 2011 and seemed to be on the right footing from the outset. With the support of Google it would take on Facebook in what would be an all-embracing platform. It had many outstanding features that Facebook didn’t. These included integration with Google services, selective sharing with circles, Google authorship, Google local and video conferencing with Hangouts. Google+ pages had a much higher reach than Facebook pages as they are not limited by an ‘Edgerank-type’ algorithm. There was transparency in the management of personal data, something Facebook has been very cavalier about and you could get your data back with the ‘Data Liberation’ feature.

In its first year its growth was unprecedented with 625,000 users after six months.

What went wrong between us

Whereas on the surface the growth of the platform was phenomenal, all was not quite as it seemed. Apart from the hard-core users, engagement stats per user were very low compared to other social media channels. Google failed to understand that a fundamental influence in social media adoption is cultural. Facebook had become part of people’s lives; it was where their friends were and the rational to move was not that compelling.

The terminology was a little confusing and there was little explanation to new users. This might explain why Google+ attracted a ‘nerd’ type following with two of the most popular pages being Android and Nasa. For the average user though, it was intimidating by virtue of its complexity. Brendan Maguire in his article ‘The Breakup of Google+ : New Opportunity or Too Little, Too Late?’, found it a telling sign that students had to be ‘trained’ in Google+ in order to appreciate the platform. Put simply, the platform was not that intuitive.

Poor branding could also have been a reason; adding a plus sign to Google was not exactly going to set the world on fire. Whereas Google is the most popular search engine, it wasn’t necessarily where people wanted to hang out and share experiences. Overall it lacked the style we have come to expect from a social media channel and was all a little too clinical in its feel. In my opinion a clean break was needed from the Google brand to give the platform a fair chance.

Seth Fiegerman of Mashable says in his article, ‘Why Google+ is splitting into photos and streams‘, that the whole Google+ project was borne from a dread of Facebook. Vic Gundotra would whisper in Larry Page’s ear: ‘Facebook will kill us’. There was a genuine concern that Facebook was amassing so much data on its users that it would beat them in the advertising game. It seems Google was so obsessed with Facebook that it failed to differentiate itself from its rival, when ironically it had a lot more to offer.

Perhaps its greatest strength was its ultimate weakness; it tried to be all things to all people. There was so much to the platform that it probably would have had a greater success if features were gradually rolled out, rather than all at once.

Google Minus

It was an ominous sign when so many cool aspects of the platform were gradually withdrawn. The Google authorship was hailed as key component in the future of SEO, however, slowly but surely the project was dismantled. Google’s reasoning on this was that it wasn’t creating enough value and there was low adoption of the markup. The slow shutdown of authorship lead to a huge decline in confidence in the platform and a reluctance to invest further time into it. Digital marketers still saw the benefits of setting up Google+ profiles for SEO benefits but these profiles were largely inactive after that.

A change in the social media landscape

Since its inception in 2011 the social media landscape has changed, with the arrival of Pinterest, Instagram and WhatsApp. David Wagner points out in his article, ‘Google+ Breakup Is The Future of Social Media‘, that the future of social media will not be about one big platform but many smaller platforms and tools specialising in a particular niche. A major factor in this shift is the move to mobile which has introduced a culture of ‘there’s an app for that’. For this reason Facebook has acquired companies such as Instagram and Whatsapp.

Google seems to following this strategy by making its best features standalone tools, in the hope that the service might succeed in smaller pieces. So the platform will continue as Google+ Streams, Hangouts and Photos. On the face of it, it seems like a wise move and it may mean Google can salvage something from its latest social media experiment.