How Google+ Blew Its Chance To Compete With Facebook

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Nov. 8 2011 5:22 PM

Google+ Is Dead

The search behemoth might not realize it yet, but its chance to compete with Facebook has come and gone.

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Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt didn't post his first Google+ message until three months after it went live

AFP/Getty Images.

Shortly after Google launched its new social network in June, many companies—including several online magazines, Slate among them—attempted to create “brand profiles” on the service. The rush was a testament to Google’s power to drive a flood of users to any new site it launches. Though Google+ was pretty rough around the edges, many observers called it a credible alternative to Facebook, so it made sense for companies to get in on the ground floor.

Yet Google seemed completely surprised by this turn of events. A product manager posted a message discouraging businesses from creating Google+ profiles, and the company began shutting down the profiles posted by renegade firms. This prompted many creative workarounds—TechCrunch jokingly created a page for a fellow named Techathew Cruncherin—but Google was unmoved. (Cruncherin’s profile was shut down.) The episode illustrated a persistent and likely fatal problem for Google’s effort to take on Facebook: There’s nothing to do on Google+, and every time someone figures out a possible use for it, Google turns out the lights.

Google did finally release brand pages this week—here’s Slate’s page—but at this point the effort might be moot. The search company says its network has attracted more than 40 million users in the months since it launched, which likely makes Google+ the fastest-growing social network of all time. But considering Google’s marketing muscle—it hasn’t been shy about directing Web searchers to Google+, and everyone who’s logged in to a Google account sees the Google+ toolbar at the top of every Google page—it would be a surprise if Google+ didn’t have so many users.

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The real test of Google’s social network is what people do after they join. As far as anyone can tell, they aren’t doing a whole lot. Traffic-analysis firms have reported that Google+’s traffic has fallen precipitously from its early peak.* Even Google’s own executives seem to have gotten bored by the site. After several public posts in the summer, co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin dropped off the site in the fall; they only started posting once more when bloggers began pointing out their absence. Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman and former CEO, posted his first public message when Steve Jobs died. That was three months after the social network went live.

I was an early Google+ skeptic. Shortly after it launched, I likened its main feature—the ability to divide your friends into discrete groups, called Circles—to the process of creating a seating chart for your wedding. In theory, it was appealing to send “private” messages to certain groups, but in practice I thought most people would find it tedious to categorize their friendships. And apart from the Circles feature—which Facebook quickly co-opted—I didn’t think Google+ distinguished itself from its rivals in any compelling way. I still don’t.

And yet, I’ve been surprised by just how dreary the site has become. Although Google seems determined to keep adding new features, I suspect there’s little it can do to prevent Google+ from becoming a ghost town. Google might not know it yet, but from the outside, it’s clear that G+ has started to die—it will hang on for a year, maybe two, but at some point Google will have to put it out of its misery.

Why am I so sure that Google+ can’t be saved? Because there’s no way to correct Google’s central failure. Back when companies were clamoring to create brand pages on the network—or users were looking to create profiles with pseudonyms, another phenomenon that Google shut down—the company ought to have acceded to its users’ wishes and accommodated them. If Google wasn’t ready for brand pages in the summer, it shouldn’t have launched Google+ until it was. And this advice goes more generally—by failing to offer people a reason to keep coming back to the site every day, Google+ made a bad first impression. And in the social-networking business, a bad first impression spells death.

I know this sounds unfair: Facebook had years to add all the features it has now, so why should we demand that Google create a perfect substitute at launch time? But that’s just the thing—taking on a behemoth like Facebook is an unfair fight. Google seems to think about its social network in the same way it thinks of any other kind of software—as a “product” that it can design step-by-step, starting with a small number of innovative features and working up from there.

That launch-first, fix-it-later strategy has worked marvelously for Google in the past. Gmail didn’t match all of Microsoft Outlook’s features from the beginning—it didn’t even have a delete button—but the stuff it did have (lots of storage and fast search) was so compelling that people were willing to stick with it until it became the best email program in existence. In the same way, I switched to Chrome because it was faster than any other browser I’ve ever used—and I stuck with it even though it lacked add-ons or the ability to bookmark many tabs at once. (It has since added those features.)

But a social network isn’t a product; it’s a place. Like a bar or a club, a social network needs a critical mass of people to be successful—the more people it attracts, the more people it attracts. Google couldn’t have possibly built every one of Facebook’s features into its new service when it launched, but to make up for its deficits, it ought to have let users experiment more freely with the site. That freewheeling attitude is precisely how Twitter—the only other social network to successfully take on Facebook in the last few years—got so big. When Twitter users invented ways to reply to one another or echo other people’s tweets, the service didn’t stop them—it embraced and extended their creativity. This attitude marked Twitter as a place whose hosts appreciated its users, and that attitude—and all the fun people were having—pushed people to stick with the site despite its many flaws (Twitter’s frequent downtime, for example). Google+, by contrast, never managed to translate its initial surge into lasting enthusiasm. And for that reason, it’s surely doomed.

Correction, Nov. 10, 2011:  This article originally and incorrectly stated that Google+ traffic is “declining.” After falling abruptly from its late-September peak, Google+ traffic has more or less stabilized. (Return to corrected sentence.)

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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