Google+ was born to die
It comes as no surprise that Google killed Google+. It was a failure from the start! In this post, I dissect what went wrong from a Growth perspective so you can avoid these mistakes for your business.
It comes to no surprise that Google gives up on Google+. To me, Google+ was sentenced to death from the moment it was born. The question is "what can we learn from that?" and the answer is "a lot". That's why I look at the failure of Google+ through a Growth lens and dissect the main issues so you can avoid them for your business.
Google - unarguably one of the most powerful companies in the world - can do a lot of things, but it just can’t create a social network. Google+ was at least the fifth attempt. Already in 2003, Google tried to buy Friendster, failed, and released “Orkut” a year later. It was shut down in 2014. Then there was “Wave” in 2009, “Aardvark” in 2010, “Buzz” in 2010, and eventually Google+ in 2011. Youtube’s acquisition in 2006 could be seen as the only successful attempt at creating a social network, but in fact, it’s more of a hybrid between social network and search engine.
That being said, Google+ did instill a lot of fear in Mark Zuckerberg who took the threat very serious:
Google Plus was Google finally taking note of Facebook and confronting the company head-on, rather than via cloak-and-dagger recruitment shenanigans and catty disses at tech conferences. It hit Facebook like a bomb. Zuck took it as an existential threat comparable to the Soviets’ placing nukes in Cuba in 1962. Google Plus was the great enemy’s sally into our own hemisphere, and it gripped Zuck like nothing else. He declared “Lockdown,” the first and only one during my time there. As was duly explained to the more recent employees, Lockdown was a state of war that dated to Facebook’s earliest days, when no one could leave the building while the company confronted some threat, either competitive or technical.
Sometimes, an enemy pushes people to work harder. By positioning itself clearly against Facebook, Google might have made it stronger. However, the clash was about to happen sooner or later either way.
Google’s biggest threats are Amazon and Facebook. No one comes close to the data treasure of a social network, though: likes, connections, check-ins, log-ins, etc. Social networks have better data than search engines or retailers (or whatever Amazon is). If you want a taste of the data richness, look at the targeting options Facebook offers for ads (it’s business model). It even knows when you’re falling in love (Forbes)! Google realized the danger that comes from this but made the mistake to simply copied what Facebook did: come out with a like button, spread it all over the net, connect users, allow them to form groups, have profile pages, upload pictures, etc.
From a Growth standpoint, I see four main reasons for Google+’ failure:
Google is the wrong company to create a social product. If you look at all social networks - Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and all the dating apps - you see that they’re built from the ground up. Some founders, like Whitney Wolfe of Tinder and Bumble, literally went to college campuses to get students to sign up as I described in Early Adopter Marketing. Zuckerberg built Facebook literally from the heart of Harvard, the dorms.
Google had enough money to kick-start Google+ and keep it artificially alive for a long time, but that was more curse than blessing: it never got enough attention because it was a cost center - not a revenue center. Also, monetization was never really figured out, which can be deadly as Instagram and Youtube show. Both had to sell because they couldn’t pay the cost of scale.
I’m not aware of a social network that was built by a company that was already successful. It leads to the problems I outline in reason 3 and 4. Zuckerberg understood that and acquired Whatsapp and Instagram, instead of just copying their product like Snapchat stories.
Another problem becomes visible when we compare Google with Facebook: they are different companies at the core. Look at the mission statements. Facebook wants to “bring the world closer together”, Google wants to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”. Facebook is a user company; Google is a data company. You just can’t build a social network on top of a data network like a feature.
This review crystallized what we’ve known for a while: that while our engineering teams have put a lot of effort and dedication into building Google+ over the years, it has not achieved broad consumer or developer adoption, and has seen limited user interaction with apps. The consumer version of Google+ currently has low usage and engagement: 90 percent of Google+ user sessions are less than five seconds.
Note the bolded passage: “90% of user sessions are less than five seconds". That’s ridiculous! 5 seconds might be enough to check whether you have new notifications or not.
Low engagement is the death of social networks. It indicates low retention, even though social networks have some of the highest and longest usage frequency of all businesses. They need high engagement and retention to work, otherwise, the viral loop doesn’t add up - not even to speak of monetization!
Copying Facebook and forcing people to use it was surely one reason for the low engagement, but it’s rounded off with a third severe mistake:
In September 2012, it announced that the service had 400 million registered users and 100 million active ones. Facebook hadn’t even quite reached a billion users yet, and it had taken the company four years to reach the milestone—100 million users—that Google had reached in one.
This contest had so rattled the search giant, intoxicated as they were with unfamiliar existential anxiety about the threat that Facebook posed, that they abandoned their usual sober objectivity around engineering staples like data and began faking their usage numbers to impress the outside world, and (no doubt) intimidate Facebook.
Usage is always somewhat in the eye of the beholder, and Google was considering anyone who had ever so much as clicked on a Google Plus button anywhere as part of their usual Google experience a “user”. The reality was Google Plus users were rarely posting or engaging with posted content, and they certainly weren’t returning repeatedly like the proverbial lab rat in the drug experiment hitting the lever for another drop of cocaine water (as they did on Facebook). When self-delusion and self-flattery enter the mind-set of a product team, and the metrics they judge themselves by, like the first plague rat coming onto a ship, the end is practically preordained.
(source: VanityFair article mentioned earlier)
Google measured the wrong data for engagement! Remember, engagement revolves around Core Product Value - a vital component of any product and Growth strategy. Thus, considering users active if they +1 content is borderline deceiving. A social network doesn’t live off of liking/+ing content, it revolves around meaningful interaction! Not only did Google not understand that but it spread an illusion of engagement. Nothing is more dangerous and fatal.
That, by the way, was clear from the beginning. In 2012, less than a year after Google+ launched, ComScore released the report that said it all:
Users spent just 3.3 minutes on Google+ in January compared to 7.5 hours for Facebook, according to a new comScore report. The gulf between usage on G+ and Facebook has always been large, but comScore's numbers show a downward trend for Google's fledgling social network. Users spent 4.8 minutes on the network in December and 5.1 minutes in November, the report said.
Engagement wasn’t only low, it was trending down. What everybody intuitively knew was proven with data. The writing was on the wall.
Third, Product/Market Fit
Google didn’t build something native to its core, search, but simply copied its biggest competitor. There was hardly any invention. Google forced Google+ on users and created the illusion of traction and product/market fit. That’s a huge problem many incumbents and big companies face: they try to bring out a new product but feed it with an existing one. That makes it hard to assess real traction and create the pressure that’s often needed to pivot for Product/Market Fit and makes it attractive to ignore problems with engagement and retention. The illusion this creates is that the product is growing while it leeches off the cash cow in fact.
One tangible example was rel=author, a little HTML tag that connects a site with a G+ profile and shows nice author pics in the search results that increased click rates. But for this, you had to have a Google+ account. Google knew that marketers are often early adopters and bring a bigger crowd with them, so they “forced” them to come on.
The news coming out of Google, leaked via the press, or via current Google employees (former colleagues to many Facebookers, who’d come from their current mortal rival), was that all of Google’s internal product teams were being re-oriented in favor of Google Plus. Even Search, then and now the most frequented destination on the Web, was being dragged into the fray and would supposedly sport social features. Search results would now vary based on your connections via Google Plus, and anything you shared—photos, posts, even chats with friends—would now be used as part of Google’s ever powerful and mysterious search algorithm.
(source: VanityFair article mentioned earlier)
There are many examples like that. Google also tried to kick-start Google+ by making it the bridge between products, especially Gmail and Youtube.
Fourth, Core Product Value
I wonder whether Google even knew what the core value of Google+ was - or if it cared. Did it even have a purpose? Yes, for Google - but not for the user! What was the added benefit for users to be on another social network other than Facebook? There was none. That’s why Google+ didn’t have a core product value, Google didn’t even know how to measure it, and hence it had no Product/Market Fit.
That leaves one question open: why kill Google+ now and not in 2014, when its executive in charge, Vic Gundotra, left?
It’s not just the security hole. The real reason is Facebook!
Google+ was an illusionary defense shield against Facebook. Until 2017, Facebook overtook Google as biggest traffic source. Then, Facebook made changes to its feed and now Google is the traffic king again. I described that extensively in “A new Google - from search to discovery engine”, but here’s my theory: Google can give up on Google+, now that Facebook isn’t as shiny for publishers and content creators anymore. The war will surely continue, but more over video (between Facebook and Youtube), AR/VR, and voice assistants (together with Amazon and Apple).
Now, that Facebook isn’t the same kind of threat anymore, Google+ may rest in peace.