Google+ was the company’s fourth try at creating its own social network to rival giants like Facebook and Twitter. Its previous networks – Orkut (2004-2014), Friend Connect (2008-2012), and Buzz (2010-2011) – had far less success than Google had anticipated. Google+ was a very ambitious project and was supposed to fix that and let the search engine giant win a worthwhile share of the social network market.
Google+ was, in many ways, similar to other social platforms, with some original features added to the mix. Users could, of course, create personalized profiles, invite friends, share photos, videos, and links, follow what their contacts were up to or check what was trending, etc.
There was also an option for non-individual entities, such as businesses, bands, etc., to set up a page and connect with customers and fans.
There was also “Circles” – a drag-and-drop feature that allowed people to put their friends into different groups. Then they could manage what content to share with each separate Circle, based on whether it was hobby or work-related, supposed to be seen just by friends, or limited to the family, and many more. Users could also set content to be public and thus shared with everyone.
Messaging was done first through Huddle, which allowed communication within a Circle. Later it was replaced by Hangouts which, apart from texting, had voice and video conference options.
The central portion of the interface was taken by the “stream”, where users could check updates from their contacts and the Communities they were part of. It was pretty much Plus’s version of Facebook Newsfeed. Another feature, the equivalent to Facebook’s “Like” was the “+1” button.
Google+ also had the Social Search feature, which let you see Google+ posts in the Google Search Bar, as long as you were logged into your account.
Google+ launched in June 2011, and Vic Gundotra and Bradley Horowitz – both with plenty of experience within Google and with tech as a whole, were heading the project.
For a short time, it was an invite-only platform. People got excited quite quickly, and many wanted in. Within a month, the platform already had 10 million users. Those later grew to 40 by October 2011 and 90 million by the end of the same year.
Despite all the hype, though, there were issues as early as July 2011. Google had decided that people could create a Google+ account only by using their real names – no nicknames or pseudonyms were allowed.
Non-conforming accounts were deleted, which caused an outrage among users since they were being banned not just from the new platform but from other Google services such as Gmail, Calendar, Documents, etc. Also, at this stage, Google banned all business profiles – something they later rectified, but the harm had already been done.
The bad decisions didn’t end there.
It seems Google wasn’t happy with how fast the network was growing, considering how many people were using the tech giant’s products as a whole. In January 2012, the company introduced the first of several “integration” steps that only served to alienate current and potential users even more. People now needed to create a Google+ account to be able to use Gmail.
That was followed by Google Talk and Google+ Messenger (Huddle) being integrated into Hangouts. The latter proved to be quite a successful communication tool, so this might not have been such a bad decision. It was still a signal of Google+ encroaching on too many Google products, including Blogger and Google sign-ins on 3rd-party sites.
The straw that broke the camel's back came in September 2013, when a Google+ account became necessary for YouTube users to be able to comment on videos. Both YouTube users and creators reacted very strongly about it. Supposedly, by this stage, Google+ users had become more than 500 million. Those were mainly sign-ins, though, and did not indicate social engagement on the platform.
In 2014 Vic Gundotra left Google. That was the beginning of several considerable changes that aimed to save the project. The real name policy was abandoned. Google+ was separated from YouTube, the Play Store comment section, and the Play Games service. Also, successful features such as Hangouts and Google Photos were released as stand-alone products.
During that time, Google attempted to revamp the network and focus on people’s interests and the Communities and Collections features, removing many others that weren’t working all that well.
Ultimately, these changes came too late – most people had lost interest in using the social network after all the previous hassle and considering most people were already deriving the same value from Facebook.
In October 2018, Google announced the decision to shut down the consumer’s version of Google+ due to “low usage and challenges involved in maintaining a successful product that meets consumers’ expectations.” The Workspace version, however, remained active and later morphed into Google Currents.
The lack of traction certainly affected Google’s decision, but the final nail in the coffin was the major data breach they had found earlier that year. It turned out that from 2015 till March 2018, around 500K accounts had been exposed to third-party app developers. Google claimed that they hadn’t found any evidence of misuse of the information.
However, the facts were that those developers could have accessed users’ details such as real name, profile photos, email, dates of birth, gender, relationship status, occupation, and places they lived. Once Google discovered the potential leak, they decided to keep quiet about it.
There was also extreme focus on social media and tech companies from governmental regulators, at the time, because of the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal. That, coupled with the new GDPR, which the EU enforced in May 2018, led to Google announcing their social media would gradually shut down by August 2019.
Yet another security leak was detected in December 2018, and this time 52.5 million users were affected. Again, Google didn’t find evidence of misuse by third-party developers but decided to speed up the shut-down process and complete it by April 2019. Users were provided with detailed information on the different stages of the process and how to save their Google+ data.
Perceiving Facebook and its growing share of the advertisement market as a valid threat, Google decided to build a copy of the social network and get users away from it.
Considering Google’s broad reach, deep pockets, and almost endless access to data, it’s hard to imagine how a project of the magnitude of Google+ could fail as badly as it did.
It had all the human capital needed, with engineers being taken from other projects and moving to Google+. The available capital also seemed more than enough – a whopping $585 million was allocated for the project during its 8-year tenure.
The search giant also had the potential to tap into its huge user base. Almost anyone with access to technology used some type of Google product by 2011, which meant that practically anyone using the internet would hear about the new social network. You could even argue that the company tried to capitalize on the opportunity to attract their current users to Google+ way too aggressively.
Google+ had a nice interface and some very cool features, even if some might have found them a bit too complicated. However, at its core, it didn’t offer much more than Facebook did. People weren’t in a hurry to leave an established network to join something new but kind-of-the-same. On top of that, considering Google’s previous failed social media attempts, a lot of people were skeptical of the project.
The first mover's advantage could be an insurmountable challenge if you are not offering some kind of unique value proposition. The main point of differentiation of Google+ was its circles, yet the circles felt more like a gimmick rather than a must-have social media feature.
Add to that the way Google tried to force people to join, and you have a recipe for disaster. Google was lucky their other affected products, such as Gmail, Maps, and YouTube, were top-notch and didn’t have any real competition, or all that hassle might have caused people to leave those platforms as well.
There have been many theories of what exactly went wrong. Articles and forum discussions by Google employees seem to point to a serious issue with how the Google+ project was being managed from top to bottom. They mention the effect on the development and overall strategy concerning the project that the social media team being separated from the rest of Google could have had.
Additionally, Google approached the whole thing hastily, wanting to increase the user base fast while not paying proper attention to the actual engagement on the platform, which was low and was a strong indicator of a lack of product-market fit. Research revealed that users spent 3-5 seconds on Google+ on average per day, compared to the hours spent on Facebook.
The search giant wanted too much, too fast with Google+, and didn’t let the network develop naturally through its growth phases. According to the Startup Genome project, premature scaling is the main reason for startup failure, and G+ definitely scaled prematurely. Google pushed to their users an unvalidated and insufficiently differentiated product and consequently produced the biggest failure in the company’s history.