Google Is Far From Losing the War Over Social

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Andrew Kelly / Reuters

Google's logo is seen at the company's New York City office.

Google’s social network, Google+, is more popular than Twitter. Every month, nearly 390 million people worldwide use the service to post messages, make video calls and endorse search results by clicking on a so-called +1 button.

And yet, two years after its launch, Google+ is still a work in progress.

Yes, a lot of people use the service, but they generally do so only briefly. Meanwhile, the search giant’s initial hopes that it would blossom into a major business have yet to pan out. The reasons are many, according to analysts, who inevitably point to Google’s late start in social networking. Some also cite a muddled purpose. Is Google+ a rival to Facebook, the social networking Goliath? Or is its mission to stitch together Google’s disparate services and make them more useful? “If I had Google in the room with me I would advise them to better communicate their vision,” says Brian Solis, a principal analyst at Altimeter Group.

To be clear, this is no time to write an epitaph for Google+. In just a short amount of time, the service has achieved quite a bit. The issues have more to do with the high expectations that come with anything Google does. Building a new social network from scratch out of the spotlight is not an option.

Google created Google+ amid growing fears about Facebook’s rapid rise. Social networking had become a key starting point for people online and a huge advertising business. But Google had missed the wave after fumbles like Buzz and Orkut. Co-founder Larry Page, who took over as Google’s chief executive in 2011, made catching up a big focus.

What Google came up with was a social network that, superficially, looks a lot like Facebook. Users can post the usual messages about their weekend plans, baby photos and links to articles they like. What makes Google+ different is its emphasis on sharing with small groups—family, friends and tennis partners, for example—rather than with all acquaintances. “Circles,” as groups are called, are designed to more closely mimic how people interact offline, Google executives said.

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Over time, Google folded several existing products into Google+ like Picasa photos and local listings along with certain parts of Gmail, Maps and YouTube. Google+ is now so sprawling that many people have little choice but to use it while others are completely unaware that they are doing so.

Vic Gundotra, senior vice president of engineering for Google, has acknowledged that Google should have added a social component to its products earlier. Social networking gives the company more details about its users like their names, where they live and what they’re interested in so that the information can be used to personalize products for them.

“Google+ is the beginning of that process,” Gundotra said recently in a question and answer session with the public held on Hangouts, the Google+ video conferencing service. He added that the effort is also aimed at creating “one beautiful, simple and seamless experience” across the company’s various products. Before, users had no single identity across search, email and YouTube.

Google+ got off to a good start in terms of users, and their numbers have continued to climb. But the amount of time they spend there is surprisingly limited. U.S. visitors to plus.google.com, the main Google+ doorway, totaled 25 million via desktop computers in August, according to Nielsen, the audience measurement firm. Those users spent an average of just 5.5 minutes keeping in touch with friends. Facebook, by contrast, had 128 million U.S. people visit by desktop in the same month, Nielsen found. They averaged more than 6.5 hours a month on the service.

The comparison isn’t exactly perfect. The numbers only take into account the main Google+ site and not activity on other related services like a shortcut that appears on virtually every Google product for getting messages. But the data highlights the huge challenge Google faces. Facebook has an overwhelming head start.

Google+ did somewhat better with its mobile apps, attracting 25 million users who averaged 12 minutes on them during August. Facebook’s apps, however, had nearly 112 million users who averaged more than seven hours on the service. Google declined to discuss the disparity. Generally speaking, Gundotra said in his online chat that “Google+ is growing faster than we ever anticipated and it’s great to see the community grow across the world.”

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One crucial part of Google’s strategy is to use Google+ to personalize search. Messages and photos from users’ connections often appear in response to queries. The idea is that information from Google+ may be even more relevant than the usual list of blue links. Someone looking for a review of a restaurant, for example, may want to see what a friend wrote. Google executives stress this kind of subtle benefit when talking about Google+. The goal, as they explain it, is bigger than simply helping people update their friends about tasty dinners and fabulous vacations, like they do so often on Facebook.

For example, last week, Google said it would use Google+ to help raise the quality of comments on YouTube videos. Posts from a person’s Google+ connections will appear above all others with those by the video’s creator and celebrities. Users prefer to see comments from people they care about rather than complete strangers, Google said. The switch will be made by the end of the year.

When Google first introduced Google+, some Wall Street analysts issued reports talking about the importance of the project and their expectations that it would become a huge business. Like Facebook, Google could sell more ads. But it hasn’t exactly turned out that way because Google has yet to directly monetize the service.

There are, of course, indirect benefits from Google+ like making Google search more relevant and thereby increasing usage. Information people put in their profiles can also be used to better target ads that appear on other Google products.

Solis, the analyst, said that Google still has work to do on the Google+ design. In particular, he said Google should focus on making the service more human, or easier to use. Superb engineering and data-driven design is, of course, the company’s strong point. Whether it can also excel at something as touchy feely as people sharing cat photos—or surfacing their friends’ cat photos in search results—remains to be seen.

24 comments
YoungbloodJoe
YoungbloodJoe

I give Google+ 1 more year before it starts to decline in usage. Hangouts, an outdated idea from 2005, is simply not going to be enough. Bundling every service Google has won't save the fact that Google+ is a sheer privacy nightmare and a boring place to be. Facebook stumbled a bit, but they are stepping up their game again. In fact I see Google+ hurting Google's long term search revenue as more and more gets leaked about what data Google is storing about you.

YoungbloodJoe
YoungbloodJoe

This line nails it: "Google+ is now so sprawling that many people have little choice but to use it while others are completely unaware that they are doing so."

Google is going to jam Google+ down our throats and for far more than "personalized search" something most people cite  as NOT wanting. They are doing it to improve ad revenues, remove further competition by social networks, and as an excuse to attack SEO, and Retargeting marketing platforms mostly seen as competitive to Google these days since Google is also now in the business of building destination sites (YouTube, Google Hotels, etc...)

pjjclarke
pjjclarke

The point is that a Google+ presence is increasingly vital to search engine rankings as well as brand projection with tools such as Google+ authorship.    

joeal_manimtim
joeal_manimtim

This is just the beginning stages for Google as a new generation of users will surely be using Google+ especially in combination with the other Google services "we" already cannot live without.

onefineart
onefineart

I love Google+ am using it from Lebanon, Middle East and have a lot of friends and even my page 'Discover Lebanon' more than 10.000 users and each day i have more liking it. Will not leave Fb. But i stay better time in G+ and sure not on Twitter which i dislike.

epavlides
epavlides

Yes people spent more time on Facebook, but is it because they cannot not get what they want and they can get at Google+ much much faster? 

For me Facebook was so annoying because of unwanted activity and waste of time that I canceled the account. I do use Google+ for very short periods of time. 

Is it possible that people who do not have time to waste prefer Google+ while they hate Facebook? 

PBrown
PBrown

I use Google+ with my family because all of over pictures get automatically backed up to Google+ I personally prefer having all of my contacts, photos, emails, documents connected through one ecosystem and Google right now has the best apps for that.

SwamitraSingh
SwamitraSingh

No Google Plus apps for Windows phone or Windows 8. Not done. Google is forgetting that back in 1995, google was also designed on Windows.

mmathieum
mmathieum

"Google has yet to directly monetize the service"
Google doesn't have to DIRECTLY monetize all their products & services.
Google+ is making all other Google products and thus generating more revenues from the usage of these other services.

It's actually the main strength of Google+ compared to Facebook & Twitter (which can only monetized by putting ads in the user news feed).

jnffarrell
jnffarrell

Muddled vision? I think not. From the beginning, I've used Search Plus MY WORLD, to organize and find my stuff and stuff related to my stuff. It makes no difference whether it is a report, a spreadsheet, a presentation a photo a video a video conference, a plan, or whatever. All the stuff is available for me when I want to collaborate. Sure the one way "Look at Me I'm Great' is easier to do on Facebook, but so what? Serious private and semi-private interactions are best done on g+.

triune
triune

1.03 Billion registered users on Google+ and growing by 1.7 million new users every day. In 2014 they will easily surpass Facebook by sheer number registered accounts holders. However, most analyst expect total time of usage on the site to not be equal to Fakebook for another 2-3 years. Source: http://plus.miernicki.com

marcellorazia
marcellorazia

I agree with the article that calling G+ anything close to a fail at this point is purely do to ridiculously high expectations. G+ is just over two years old and its grown every quarter. 

Its not in Facebook's league yet, but Facebook took FOUR YEARS to even catch MySapce, something a lot of people seem to be unaware of. I think when G+ is 5 or 6 years old, then its fair to compare to Facebook, but doing so this early in its life is like comparing a college graduate to Warren Buffet and labeling him poor.

There is no doubt G+ has to hit mass appeal to win, but that's only the last element to draw those people who will only do things if their friends are also doing it. But G+ is slowly gaining users from those who make up their own minds about value the way G+ makes Google products more efficient such as better sharing in Gmail, Android, Drive, and Google's Photo services. 

Its going to be interesting to see how it all plays out, but I wouldn't bet against Google in this fight either. 

chrispy
chrispy

There is no real compelling reason for me or my friends to switch to google+. The reasons people want to leave facebook, for example, are all centered around privacy. This is why me and many of my friends (though not all) have started using Ravetree. They don't have ads and they don't violate my privacy. I also have recently started using DuckDuckGo for search and HushMail for email. I highly recommend weening yourself from the google ad network.

Shabir_md
Shabir_md

@YoungbloodJoe 

Respecting user privacy was never even Fb's core business strength. The "Graph Search" can never even exist if user privacy is respected. Ya, ya, it says users can only see what friends share, but marketters can see everything via graph search, now where is the privacy . Its all eye wash. Also, using hidden posts for advertisement is bad. By hidding, the user has given a signal to Fb that even friends should not see, and it is very private. But Fb never respects it. This is otherwise called Misuse of trust. FB is known for this at every stage, history speaks it. On the otherhand, for other privacy issue, When people escalate privacy issue, Fb tries to buy them, and if not possible, change it only to revert it back to old stupidity immediately. this happened many times in the past and may happen in future aswell. also, Using user name and photo for advertising without user's concern was filed in court and won. Still, FB continues to do it even after loosng the case. Very bad. Google can be a night mare in future, we will never know, But i am not liking FB Privacy now and i became a rare user already due to this.

shalmont
shalmont

@SwamitraSingh google didnt even exist in 1995, stop typing out of your ass... it was founded September 4, 1998

YoungbloodJoe
YoungbloodJoe

@mmathieum I agree. Google+ can undermine competition by simply never posting ads, that will get them into big trouble in the EU but not here in the Good Ol USA where abusing market power is apparently ok these days. Google WILL pipe data from Google+, Android, Chrome, and Google Fiber into a singular database to profile you and sell you ads.. also the gov't gets access to that. No thanks Google. Give me my privacy back.

YoungbloodJoe
YoungbloodJoe

@chrispaterson114  Google+ is WORSE for your privacy than Facebook. On Facebook you get to determine your information, on Google+ you can't even change your name without it being a huge deal, difficult to make things private, oh and let's not forget that Google knows EVERYTHING you do and can send that to the Gov't gestapo.

marcellorazia
marcellorazia

@YoungbloodJoe @chrispaterson114 Seriously, your love of everything Facebook has not just clouded your judgement but totally diminished any credibility your comments have here to the point they are almost comical. 


cateringhire
cateringhire

@marcellorazia I agree with YoungbloodJoe comments and just want to aware you of the new age syndrome called "google obsession" .... ha