Why Google's social network was a spectacular failure

JP Mangalindan
Chief Tech Correspondent

It was supposed to be the next big social network: a legitimate threat to the Facebook (FB) juggernaut. But on Monday, Google (GOOG, GOOGL) announced it would shut down Google+ over the next 10 months following revelations of a massive data breach affecting 500,000 users, putting an end to one of the company’s biggest failures and deepest embarrassments to date.

In 2011, Google launched Google+ after an aggressive 100-day scramble internally to create a social network that would “fix” online sharing, which the company described then as “awkward” and “broken.” But in reality, Google+ was borne out of a deep-seated desire to stave off Facebook, which was privately valued at $14 billion then and approaching 500 million active users. Inside the Mountain View, California tech giant, Google executive Vic Gundotra reportedly argued that Facebook was chipping away at its dominance. Nevermind that Google’s bread and butter was advertising or that the company’s previous efforts at social, including Google Wave and Buzz, went nowhere. In those products, Google’s problem seemed clear: Google viewed social more like a tacked-on feature and didn’t understand what made social networks communities unto themselves.

Problems from the start

The same could be said of Google+, whose problems were evident from the start despite initial fanfare. By requiring new Google users to also open Google+ accounts, Google believed it could quickly amass Google+ members simply by getting Gmail users — hundreds of millions at the time — onboard and introducing several Facebook-like features: friend groups or “circles,” the ability to share content, and the ability to like or “+1” that content.

While Google+ copied Facebook, it lacked the indefinable sense of virtual intimacy Facebook had then. On Facebook, many of those suggested friends were likely real-life friends, family, and coworkers. Google+ lacked that same feeling of familiarity, pulling recommended friends from your Gmail contacts: a massive database of people that could even include distant contacts you emailed once or twice. It wasn’t uncommon to get a slew of friend recommendations of people you didn’t want to befriend online at all.

Getting around Google+ on the desktop was also a static, rote experience. Beyond posting and liking content, there simply wasn’t much more to it. There were no local events to RSVP to or Instagram-esque photo filters for millennials and teens to tinker with — elements that draw users back again and again. On mobile, meanwhile, Google+ was a bloated app with too many cumbersome layers for users to tap and swipe through.

Indeed, where Google+ copied Facebook, it didn’t copy enough  — at least enough features for users to care — and it didn’t roll out enough features to help the social network stand apart from Mark Zuckerberg’s creation, either.

Failure to create a unique social network

Google failed to create something compelling, and it failed to communicate to people why they should spend less time liking posts on Facebook and more time hitting the +1 button on Google+. It also didn’t help that Facebook had a seven-year headstart on Google and had become nearly synonymous with social networking by then.

Little wonder that although Google+ claimed 300 million monthly active users in late 2013, that number plummeted to 111 million in April 2015, according to Stone Temple Consulting, a third-party digital marketing agency.

By then, Google+’s demise seemed only a matter of time. Throughout 2014 and 2015, Google began downplaying Google+ as a brand. The social network was a no-show at the Google I/O conference in 2014, and Google started spinning off some services, such as photos, from the social network, ostensibly in an effort to attract more users with those standalone services. In 2015, the company also stopped requiring people to have a Google+ account to comment on YouTube videos.

Google+ had become a punchline among the technorati by 2016. Visit your Google+ feed, and the social network was a veritable ghost town, with infrequent friend updates and very little engagement on posts.

Two years later, it’s hardly surprising Google is finally shutting down the social network, even if the breach and internal cover-up is a dubious reason to do so. Some may wonder what took the company so long. But the answer is one that seems to characterize Google’s strategy when it comes to social, an area it’s now proven time and again it doesn’t grok. Simply put, Google has a hard time letting go and conceding failure.

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