At the end of April, when Vic Gundotra — Google’s VP of social and effectively the person in charge of Google+ — announced he was leaving the company, obituaries for the social network began pouring in.
The lightning rod for this conversation was TechCrunch’s piece “Google+ Is Walking Dead,” which reported that the company was shuffling more than 1,000 employees to reflect a de-emphasis on the social network.
A Google rep in the same piece said the news of Gundotra’s departure “has no impact on our Google+ strategy,” but TechCrunch reported otherwise.
Spring turned to summer, and Google+ is still going with no signs of changing course — though Google has announced a few relevant tweaks to Hangouts and other products incubated within or connected to Google+.
What does this mean for the three-year-old social network? No one can seem to agree. Here are the various arguments from 24 social media experts.
Google+’s Name is Already Mud
There are some people who automatically recoil at any mention of the network, Ars Technica’s reviews editor Ron Amadeo said. “As a brand, Google+ is about at toxic as you can get,” he wrote in an April piece.
Others have lauded the network’s design, usability and lack of ads. “Google+ is arguably the slickest, coolest social site that just didn’t happen,” said [a]listdaily’s associate managing director, Lauren Arevalo-Downes.
“They embraced large format photos and hashtags with aplomb, the companion app is bold and Instagram-like, and Google Hangouts are, well, just straight up cool,”she wrote in April. “It was just too little too late.”
Still, user data demonstrated, even before the April news, that people accessing Google+ via desktop and laptop computers were only spending about three minutes each month on the network, Amir Efrati from the Wall Street Journal reported in February. Compare that to the six or seven hours users spent each month on Facebook, and you see the yawning chasm between the two social platforms.
Google+ Faces an Unfair Standard of Success
But is that even a fair comparison? Search Engine Journal editor Kelsey Jones argued in July that maybe it’s not. Google+, after all, is still a big network, and it’s still growing. “Yes, Google+ doesn’t have as many users as LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook, but it does have more than Pinterest and Slideshare, two fast-growing visually-based social networks,” she wrote.
The difference between Facebook and Google+ specifically lies in the users themselves, and their attitudes toward social.
Social media and digital PR expert Chris Abraham famously called Google+ an “anti-social network” built by people who don’t value engagement the same way active Facebook users do. “It’s pretty much all cardboard box and access to 500 million people globally,” he wrote at Business 2 Community in July.
This anti-social user base might also mean that the network effect doesn’t apply to Google+, tech reporter Mike Elgan argued in eWeek in July. “In short, while Google+ has become less elitist, and while the quality of conversations has declined by default, it’s still the best place to blog, in my opinion, and the best all-purpose social network.”
Social Was Never Google’s Strength, Anyway
Google+’s obituary writers were pretty quick to advise the company to cut its losses and just move on.
MarketingLand editor Danny Sullivan advocated in April stripping away the facade of Google+ as a social networking, doing away with the name and just keeping the integration with other Google services. Sullivan, then, in his April piece, effectively wasn’t saying to kill of Google+ so much as testing the limits of “a rose by any other name.”
Others were ready to euthanize the network.
“Now’s the time to shutter Google+, and consign it to the dust-heap where many of their other social products lie (Jaiku, Google Buzz, and Google Wave to name a few), and allocate all that Google+ talent to doing what the company does best — selling a ton of advertising in a way that really resonates with its customers,” executive coach and social customer consultant Adam Metz wrote in TechRepublic.
Hold that thought.
Google+ Might Not Even Be a Social Network, As Commonly Defined
On the other hand, some people — perhaps even Google execs themselves — are not even thinking of Google+ as a social network, i.e. a landing spot to aggregate attention that can be sold to advertisers.
“What we’re hearing from multiple sources is that Google+ will no longer be considered a product, but a platform — essentially ending its competition with other social networks like Facebook and Twitter,” TechCrunch co-editors Alexia Tsotsis and Matthew Panzarino reported in the aforementioned “Walking Dead” piece.
So what is Google+, then? What does Google mean when it describes the network as a “social layer?”
“We don’t visit Google+ as much as it follows us,” James Robinson, staff writer for PandoDaily, argued in May. “Facebook is a friend that can’t keep secrets. Google+ is the stalker you didn’t know you had. It catalogs our thoughts and queries. It knows where we work and live, who we correspond with and what we find entertaining.”
Data, according to him, is Google+’s output, not eyeballs to sell to advertisers. Instead, Google uses its own proprietary user data to inform its own massive advertising network.
Or, as heavy Google+ user and brand advocate Amanda Blain wrote in April in response to all of the Google+ obituaries: “Google does not care if you post cats on Saturday on G+ the social stream or not. They still know what city you now live in, that you are male or female and maybe even what school or where you work. Their advertising has become way more useful than it was 5 years ago. If you post cats on the social stream, Google also knows you like cats in some way. Rock on. Better advertising for me.”
Google’s Own SEO Efforts
Furthermore, this social layer enriches businesses’ abilities to optimize for search, to manage their reputations and supercharge their search engine marketing.
Phil Penton, president of social media and reputation management platform Social Integration, suggested in May that Google+’s role is, well, social integration. “People aren’t searching for businesses on Google+,” he told Social Times. Instead, they are searching on Google itself and seeing more informed search results thanks to Google+ optimization.
“It is for anyone who is already using Google’s other products (most of us), who want to improve their SEO rankings in Google’s search engine,” Daniel Green, creator of the freelancing platform GetSerio argued in July. “As Google begins to fully integrate Plus into their products, people will find themselves active users simply because they are already on the site,” he wrote on Business 2 Community.
Jeremy Walker, VP of digital marketing at digital marketing agency Primacy, cited Google’s go-to example of best practice, Dandelion Chocolate: “There is no doubt that much can be gained by tapping into the local search benefits of this new resource, as demonstrated by the 540,000-plus pageviews [despite just 273 followers],” Walker wrote in Media Post.
And even if Google+ ceases to exist in name, its operations will be a pillar for Google going forward, Mark Traphagen of Stone Temple Consulting wrote in Marketing Land. “Google was already strategically moving from pushing Google+ the social engagement platform to promoting Google+ the one-stop data miner for webmasters and app developers in relation to their users.”
We Have Yet to Realize the True Benefits of Google+
“We” in this case might include Google execs themselves, Forrester Research’s Nate Elliott said in July. “Google+ is actually a useful social site,” he told Phys.org, but “even Google doesn’t seem to understand the value of Google+ as a standalone property.”
And without this clear vision from the company itself, Shareaholic’s Danny Wong argued, it is unclear how business and marketers should integrate Plus into their social strategies. “Arriving late to the game, Google+ failed to grow user adoption of the platform since most marketers and publishers still do not quite understand its value and are likely overwhelmed managing their already claimed and robust Facebook and Twitter accounts,” he wrote in Media Post in July.
But with an anti-social base of loyal users and other untapped resources, Google+ might represent a real opportunity for marketers and businesses to reach a whole new group of people, marketing executive Maxwell Stinson argued at Business 2 Community. “That’s why it’s better that you yourself approach [those users] on their own terms,” he wrote. “There is no need for either party to impose their strategies upon one another.”
Jayson DeMers, founder of Seattle marketing agency AudienceBloom, wrote in July that Plus is going to become a major factor in social media soon. “For now, business owners should continue to focus on using the platform as a way to connect with prospects, but perhaps more importantly as a primary method of establishing Author Rank and authority for their content,” he wrote in Forbes.
Unbundling Apps For Mobile Might Still Be the Death Blow
As mobile continues to emerge, single-purpose apps might begin to collectively replace whole social networks. At least, that’s what Facebook seems to be banking on.
Ellis Hamburger, a reporter at The Verge, detailed Facebook’s strategy of fragmentation — unbundling its social network into a suite of single-purpose mobile apps — which hints at an internet that would have little room for Google+ as it exists right now.
Mobile startup Acompli’s founder and CEO Javier Soltero blogged in June that Tinder is among the gold standards for polished, single-purpose apps that can still handle huge amounts of social information.
“Tinder’s sole purpose is to help you meet people (what you do after that is beyond the scope of any app),” he wrote. “The beauty of Tinder’s design is how it makes browsing large numbers of people easy and fun.”
Could this trend represent a viable model for Plus going forward?
That unbundling hasn’t been reported from Google, but we have already seen Google+’s integration into other products reversed. TechCrunch writer Frederic Lardinois reported at the end of July that Google Hangouts are being made available to users who don’t have a Google+ account, though certain restrictions apply on mobile, and some of the apps within Hangouts will not be available.
Altimeter’s Charlene Li said turning Google+’s features into a handful of standalone would be a good idea. “The idea of a destination site, like the Google+ page is getting kind of antiquated,” she told Phys.org in July.
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