Too little, too late: the Google Plus history

David Marin

If there was one big and powerful tech company that could dethrone Facebook from its social media kingdom, who would that be? Think about it, there aren’t really a lot of options. 

That’s right, if there’s an internet giant with the money and hierarchy to take on Facebook it’s probably Google. Or at least it’s definitely one of them. One might argue if Google needed to do that though, but when you look at Facebook not as much as social media but also as the advertising monster that it is, then it made more sense for Google to worry about it. And they did worry about it and created one of the biggest failures in the history of social media apps.

Looking back at the 2010 Google, it had already been solidly dominating online searches and was quickly becoming a major player in the mobile space with Android. They had mapped much of the world’s geography, indexed millions of books and were getting into stuff like smart wearables and building self-driving cars. It didn’t look like a company that needed to place such a high bet on social media, but still, they did. 

We’re going to remember Google Plus, Google’s most ambitious take on social media and its somewhat inevitable downfall to death. We’ll first revisit some of Google’s previous attempts on social networks, then go over why and how Plus was born, review some of the product features and development, do the necessary confrontation with Facebook and finally get to some conclusions on the outcome.

Previous attempts on social networks

As some may know, Plus wasn’t the first or second attempt from Google to create its own social platform, trying to replicate what Facebook had done so well since its birth. And that right there may be an important starting point: the why. We know Google wasn’t born as a social network, despite the fact that it literally drives traffic on the web with its more than 2B active users. 

By 2010, Facebook was privately valued at $14B while Google’s market capitalization was around $200B, but social wasn’t in Google’s DNA. Even people like Chris Wetherell, the founder of Google Reader, recognized this by acknowledging that "it wasn’t going to be why Google existed, unlike the way it was for Twitter or Facebook”, and went as far as to state that “It was the wrong company at the wrong time."

Still, since the early days they tried hard to out-facebook Facebook, creating things like Orkut, a social site that launched just shortly before Facebook, but that was rapidly overtaken. Now... we know it was 2004 and Google is not a design firm or anything, but we just want to take a couple of seconds to share this Orkut promotional video, from Google’s official account on Youtube. 

Yeah, moving on... After Orkut, Google also launched Wave, a real-time communication platform that apparently did a lot more than messaging. Mashable described it in a 2010 article, saying that it... “combined aspects of email, instant messaging, wikis, web chat, social networking, and project management to build one elegant, in-browser communication client”.

It sounds convoluted and looking at images of its interface, it did look confusing. So, it ultimately never took off. 

But the biggest attempt on making a social platform before Plus was Google Buzz and this one had a particularity: it was built on the back of Gmail and was very much entwined to it. That probably seemed like an obvious move to hit the ground running and leverage those millions of Gmail users, but the truth is that it was poorly implemented and ended up backfiring. Big time.

It wasn’t too late before a lot of Gmail users were surprised by now being part of this thing called Buzz and by finding out their email contact list and other stuff were made public. For example, publishing your most-emailed contacts as friends, along with other features that made other information public, without the user express consent.

As you can imagine or remember, this developed and ended up in a scandalous class-action lawsuit that Google settled with the Federal Trade Commission at the end of 2010, by paying $8.5M. All US Gmail users by that time received an unusual email from Google, clarifying the issue and sort of apologizing but also stating that no user would receive a dime. It wasn’t much of a goodwill gesture but part of the agreement settled with the FTC.

Why and how Plus was born

So, after this bumpy road, Google persisted and in June 2011 launched yet the most ambitious and well-thought social platform that it had been cooking. Google Plus was released only a few months later Buzz was turned off, but this doesn’t mean it was built lightly. All the opposite, numerous testimonials and interviews from former executives revealed that Plus had become a central project at Google, swallowing resources and staff from all other units.

It’s been reported that Larry Page himself, the co-founder that had been in the shadows for a time and returned as CEO by those days, sent an internal memo across the company and tied 25% of employee bonuses to their success in social, meaning Google Plus. The memo said things like “If we’re successful, your bonus could be up to 25% bigger. If not, your bonus could be up to 25% less than the target.”. Ouch.

Now, for comparison, it’s been reported that the Buzz team had not much more than a dozen people, while the Google Plus workforce allegedly surpassed the thousand. Many of the former executives  have confirmed this implied message across the company that the bet was all in. 

But somehow, Google didn’t want to make a big buzz about it… (no pun intended). They had already done launch announcements and press stunts for their previous attempts, like Wave or Buzz, and we all know how that went. Not that those went wrong because of making public launch events of course, but it seemed like Google understood that there was little room for surprise in the social media field as the public was more than familiar with the looks and mechanics of it, more specifically, Facebook. 

Instead, with Plus they were looking for the long term battle and somehow a more under the hood approach, looking for a durable and steady insertion of their product in the public’s life over the span of the coming years. 

Apparently, the fear of Facebook was also very real in Google those days and it moved high management into action. VP Engineering Vic Gundotra, who had a major role in Android’s development, was put in charge of Google’s social efforts and along with Larry Page, they could be seen as the brains behind Google Plus. In their vision, they wanted to “fix online sharing”, making it social and more natural, just as much as person to person interactions as possible.

Product features and developments 

Let’s do a quick review of Google’s Plus main features and understand how it really worked. 

The user experience probably started with “Circles”. It was the group management feature, where you could easily group your Gmail or Google account contacts, like family or groups of friends based on common interests and drag them into, well, circles. Simple and familiar enough, you would basically create groups with the people in your Google contacts, somewhat based on your interactions with them. In a TechCrunch interview, Gundotra acknowledged circles as a core feature of the product, despite also being aware that group management features in social media weren’t particularly a hit by that time. 

It turns out, the Circles feature may have been one of the keys to Google Plus failure, as suggested by MG Siegler in his TechCrunch review as an early adopter. It appeared that in Google executive’s minds, sharing through Circles was the correct way to use Google Plus and it was meant to differentiate it from Facebook or Twitter. With Circles, interactions were supposed to be more personal in the sense that you would share with your own or circles, and not as much publicly. But this wasn’t achieved and the very few people who posted did it publicly, making it look just like a feed of any other social network.

Another feature was “Sparks”, a sort of interactive search engine within Google Plus, where you would search for content of your interest and be able to share it with your circles, allowing for some interactions like commenting and the +1 reactions that were pretty much the equivalent to Facebook likes. It also had content suggestions in the Featured interests area, and through “instant upload” you were able to upload photos and videos from your phone.

Then “Huddle” was a group messaging app that worked across Android, iOS, and SMS, to communicate with people in your circles. And finally, there was “Hangouts”, one that evolved and made it into the current suite of Google apps. But back then, it was a group video chat integrated with your circles, so if you were online and willing to video-chat, everyone in the circle would be notified and be able to join the conference. Gundotra had suggested that video chat wasn’t yet so popular, mostly because it was socially awkward to do it and they also wanted to fix that. 

But all these features felt like stand-alone products, and that place where Google intended to unify them and provide users with a single destination ended up being a ghost town.  It was all supposed to be centralized in the infamous black bar that was embedded on top of Google’s sites, the place that you would always have access to and where you controlled all the functions. Some of these features evolved to become their own stand-alone app within the current line-up of Google apps, like Photos or Hangouts. 

In the end, Plus was a huge effort to unify all these features into a place where you would create a single identity traceable across the web and socialize on the internet. It sounds ambitious enough for a company like Google, and in a way is what they ended up doing, but their attempts to make it through social media were all doomed.

I wish I had used Google Plus more so I could have clearer memories of the experience of using all those features. But the reality is that I hardly used it a handful of times, and chances are you didn’t use it much more than that either. This became painfully evident as time went by and in early 2015, one study published by Eric Enge at Stone Temple Consulting, revealed some of the concerning engagement metrics of Google Plus. 

Google hadn’t published any data and this was the biggest analysis of actual profiles data to that moment. It reported that the number of active users in Google Plus was way lower than 1% of Google users. Agreed, considering Google’s more than 2B users, that’s still more than 100M, but the study also showed that more than 90% of people with a profile (which was created for every Google sign up), had never publicly posted anything. Just nothing.

Confrontation with Facebook

From those around 111M active users on Google Plus, only 6.7 million users had 50 or more posts ever, and only 3.5 million of them had 50 or more posts in the last 30 days, according to the study. These are numbers that an early-stage startup would dream of, but for Google and their bet to outrun Facebook, this screamed failure. 

After witnessing the epic amounts of work and resources that were put into Google Plus, even some former Google employees from other divisions said they were unamused when they saw the result. It was just too much like Facebook with a Twitter sprinkle. Soon, it became evident that the goal of taking over Facebook or at least pairing with it just wasn’t going to happen.

On the other hand, Facebook had been thriving and catching up, with more than 1.4B users by then and a market capitalization of already more than half of Google’s. More importantly, Facebook profiles and feeds were vibrant, full of family and friends interactions just happening naturally, birthday dates and pictures, and ultimately true network effects. Instead, Google Plus never took off, despite the huge background that Google’s user base was supposed to be, and only six months after the release there was already a worrying sense that something wasn’t working.

Conclusions on the outcome

By the end of 2018, Google announced the rollout plan to turn off Google Plus “due to low usage and challenges involved in maintaining a successful product that meets consumers’ expectations”, as read in their official statement. The plan was to shut it down by August 2019, but the plot thickened when yet new privacy leakage scandals unveiled. 

Shortly before announcing the shutdown, it was known that earlier in 2018 Google had patched a security hole that gave third-party developers access to user profile data without their consent. This allegedly affected data of 500K users, however, Google said it had no evidence this data was misused by the 438 apps that could have had access. The scandal produced further discomfort when Google admitted to having detected this but not notifying the public at the moment.

Things got worse when a bigger privacy leak was made public, this time by Google themselves and without waiting months to do it. The new bug was only live for about six days in early November 2018, and it was related to the Google Plus People API. It affected more than 50M users by allowing apps that requested permission to view profile information from users, like their names, email addresses, occupation, gender, birthday, relationship status and age; to access this information even when that data was set to non-public. Furthermore, it also gave access to profile data that had been shared between users but that wasn’t shared publicly.

Yet again, Google said that there was no evidence that developers ever realized they had access to this data or that it was misused in any way. The bug was introduced, detected and fixed within a period of one week. After this, the Google Plus shutdown date was moved from August to April 2019 and that was it.

So, yeah, Google’s development in social media was everything but glamorous or successful. But not everything was so bad. On the bright side of things, Google Plus ended up providing the blueprint for what a Google account is nowadays. Today it focuses more on productivity and provides an infrastructure for us more than 2B users to manage several key aspects of our lives online through its set of apps. 

And ultimately, in terms of social networks, we must say that Google has the absolute winning hand in the video department with unbeatable YouTube, which is a mature and self-sufficient network that will clearly never be in Company Forensics.

David Marin
Customer Success Manager at Slidebean. Writer since a kid. Yeah, started with little poems, stories, and moved to TV and film scripts after professional scriptwriting studies. Tech passionate and curious by default.
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