Google has made a number of announcements recently that have people watching the fate of Google+. The social media platform has fought long and hard to climb to its current position as number two amongst social sites, but in doing so, it has fallen to a number of missteps. These recent announcements have everyone wondering; is Google+ on its way out?
A Rocket Start and a Seat at Number Two
Google+ was not the first social media attempt on the part of Google. The company went through both Google Buzz and Google Friend Connect, retiring both after they failed to live up to the expectations of users or the company. Orkut, their third social offering, took off in Brazil but saw little attraction elsewhere. Google+, which started life as the invitation-only Google Circles, seemed to do everything right. It expanded explosively.
Myspace, Twitter, and Facebook all took around three years to reach the 50 million user mark. Google+, through a combination of early invitation-only account creation, the reputation of the company and the growing frustration of Facebook users, reached that milestone in only three months.
Google+ was suffering, despite insane account growth, however. Even though the site quickly overtook every social media offering except Facebook, users didn’t care. They registered, but they didn’t use the site. Facebook users would spend an average of seven and a half hours per month on the site, while Google+ users only logged a mere three minutes. Something had to be done.
Since that time, Google has tried roughly every trick it knows to get users to use the platform more. It created Authorship to attract bloggers with the promise of a beneficial SEO effect. It created hangouts to attract users who liked voice and video chats or webinars. It integrated Google+ accounts with general Google accounts, to encourage Gmail users to set up G+ profiles. It integrated Google+ accounts with YouTube, requiring the social profiles to comment.
Even so, to this day, Google+ has struggled with engaging users to the level Facebook has achieved. Every year, it seems as though some move the company makes is met with backlash. The most recent, the YouTube comments integration, has received great ire.
Head of the Team Leaving and Reorganization
This past April, Google+ received another shakeup; this time in the form of a personnel change. Specifically, Vic Gundotra, the brains and impetus behind Google+, announced that he was leaving Google for other opportunities. For those who don’t know the politics behind Google+; Gundotra is the man who pushed for Google+ every step of the way, who made the decisions and who managed the team.
His announced move led to widespread speculation as to the future of Google+. Was Google going to retire the site, stop supporting it or dial back its importance? Google claimed there would be no significant change, but the announcement belied internal struggles. With Gundotra leaving and a new building opening on the Google campus, many of the Google+ team – a group of around 1,100 people – were being moved both in position and in location. Many of the Hangouts and Photos teams, historically integrated with Google+, were being shifted to the Android development group.
Alongside this shift in personnel was a shift in policy. The YouTube backlash was strong enough to drive Google to back down on their policy of requiring Google+ accounts for new and updated products. Moving forward, the Google+ platform isn’t going to be as required to use upcoming Google services.
Google Authorship’s Value
One of the last bastions of actual value to be found in Google+ after this announcement was Google’s Authorship. Authorship allowed users who owned and ran their own blogs – or contributed to other blogs – to link their Google+ profile and their blog posts. This was beneficial for blogs, because the Google+ integration put a profile picture in the search results to promote the author. Images are attractive, and profile pictures led to higher clickthrough rates for search links. On the flip side, this was beneficial to Google because it encouraged further use of Google+, just what Gundotra wanted.
Until recently, that is. Google announced a few days ago that it would be removing profile pictures from search results. Now, the only benefit an author gets is their name in grey beneath the link and URL, above the snippet.
This has come as quite a shock to many SEO professionals and bloggers, who have long understood that Authorship was an unquestionable benefit; it was a given process. Implement Authorship on a blog, that blog’s posts start having profile pictures. Profile pictures increased clickthrough rates for those posts. More clicks meant more traffic, more readers, more conversions; everything a blog is reaching for with SEO.
Google, in making their announcement, claimed that the clickthrough rate between Authorship-enabled blogs and other blogs was virtually identical. SEO professionals are, of course, skeptical. It was measureable, after all, that implementing Authorship was beneficial to a blog.
Cleaner Design, Advertising Placement and a Toxic Brand
There are three issues that have led to this announcement in one way or another, in addition to Gundotra leaving the company.
Issue 1: The visual design. Google has done everything in their power over the years to create a clean, clutter-free design. It has kept images largely out of search, with the exception of the failed business banner image proposition and the bar for image and video results that appears for certain queries. In some sense, profile pictures cluttered up the design with more visual debris; a profile picture may be attractive for a user, but it doesn’t inherently provide much value. Only those familiar with certain authors would know them when they see them, after all.
Issue 2: The visibility of sponsored results. This one is the paranoid option. Google’s own sponsored search results – the results that earn them money when they’re clicked – didn’t include a profile picture. Authorship didn’t work with sponsored ads. Authorship increased clickthrough rates for blogs, but that draws attention away from sponsored ads. Google, then, would be losing money with Authorship.
Issue 3: Google+’s historically toxic touch. Just look at YouTube, or the previous Gmail integration of Google+. Users hate being forced to register for this social media site just to use services they’re already using with accounts they already registered. It’s an extra hassle and it doesn’t give them any benefit. All it did was allow Google to say they had higher G+ user engagement, when it wasn’t actually true. It could be that some hesitance to promote Authorship, because of its tie to Google+, is taking its toll.
Is Google+ Dying?
Perhaps the real question is, was Google+ ever truly alive? Sure, the site had a massive number of users, but over the years, many of its usage statistics have been somewhat fudged. Authorship is just one more ship foundering in the Google+ fleet.
Google+ is not dying, but neither is it being pushed as strongly as it once was. Rather, Google is likely to shift their emphasis away from pushing Google+ as the product itself, and more towards using it as the platform for future, hopefully more attractive services.