It’s been just over a week since Google Plus was unveiled to the world. Google’s big new announcement wasn’t exactly a surprise, but the beauty and elegance of the product caught many off guard. The Google Plus launch will probably go down as a turning point in Google’s history. This will probably be the do or die moment for Google, as far its social media aspirations are concerned. Facebook has already established itself as the undisputed leader among social networks, and is currently well on its way to weaving itself into the very fabric of the interwebs. If Google fails now, it might not get the opportunity to fight another day. So it’s only but natural that the Google Plus launch caught the imagination of tech enthusiasts around the globe. The questions on everyone’s mind were Does Google ‘get social’? Can it finally succeed in challenging Facebook?
As expected from any major product launch, Google+ attracted everything from ebullient praises to utter disdain. I have been using Google Plus enthusiastically for the exactly a week now. In his initial review, my colleague Tony Price hailed Google Plus as one of the most amazing products he has ever seen. While my reactions are slightly more restrained, I am also amongst the hordes of geeks that Google Plus has succeeded in winning over. While the enthusiastic reception from early adopters is a positive sign, it doesn’t automatically imply mainstream success. Google is concerned by the growing influence of Facebook because through its ‘Like’ buttons Facebook is able to gather accurate personal data such as which movies you like, which movies your friends like, and which movie you might enjoy watching. Google is desperate to gain a foothold in the social web, because it can help them make sense of the semantic web, while supplying a treasure trove of additional data. However, in order to do this, Google Plus needs to achieve critical mass. Make no mistake, anything but large scale adoption will mean failure for Google+.
Google has been trying to understand social for a long time. It tried to reinvent how we communicate with Wave, which crashed and burned. It tried to force social down the throat of users with Buzz, which reaffirmed the notion that Google doesn’t understand social. It’s only semi-successful attempt at social networking has been Orkut, which managed to gain traction in the Indian sub-continent and Brazil. However, Facebook has succeeded in rooting out Orkut from even these strongholds. Each of these failures has one thing in common. They were all fairly well received when they launched. Wave caught the imagination of tech pundits all over the world, and in spite of its privacy missteps, many believed that the massive user base guaranteed that Buzz wouldn’t fade out like Wave. But, it did. Nevertheless, Google has got a few crucial things right with Google Plus.
Unique Selling Point: The first question that Google’s new social product needed to answer was why is it required? We already have Facebook, which is a damn good social network. Google failed to demonstrate a convincing enough use case with Wave. People who logged onto Wave didn’t know what they were supposed to do with it. Thankfully, with Google Plus things are better. The welcome page itself has a very strong call to action that highlights the three pivots of Google Plus (Circles, Hangouts, and Sparks), and encourages the user to either watch a video about these features or to them.
Nuanced Approach: Social Networking is something that can be deeply personal. In this niche, being presumptuous can be a very dangerous thing. Unfortunately Google did just that with Buzz, and more recently with its Google Calendar Father’s Day reminder. Fortunately, Google Plus doesn’t force things down a user’s throat. It suggests people to add to circles, but doesn’t automatically do that for you. And whenever it does presume something, for example the circle you want to share a post with, it does so in a manner that makes the fact obvious. If you try to re-share a post that was originally targeted to a limited audience, Google Plus is sensitive enough to warn you that the original author might not want that content to be seen by a wider audience.
Smart Rollout: Google pioneered the invitation approach with the Gmail launch. It used the same system to create a huge amount of interest in Google Wave. So, it’s not surprising that Google Plus is also currently invitation-only. However, Google was smart enough to realize that early adopters will get bored very quickly if they only had a dozen or so friends on Google+. Hence, Google Plus was made open to all on at least two occasions, unlimited invites were offered to the seed group, and workarounds that allowed users to invite their friends were allowed to exist. According to some very imaginative calculation by Paul Allen, Google Plus currently has 1.7 million users. Even if that number is inaccurate, Google Plus has undoubtedly had a surprisingly brisk rollout, which succeeded in building up hype, without crippling the usability of the product itself.
Google Plus is a step in the right direction, but in order to fulfill its potential it will need to overcome two big challenges.
The biggest challenge for Google will be to convince people that Plus offers significant enough benefits to make the switch worthwhile. Rebuilding the social graph is something that takes time and effort. Early adopters are always eager to jump aboard the latest and the greatest service, but most normal users aren’t. Being an Indian I witnessed up close exactly how hard it is to get people to switch. In spite of being vastly superior to Orkut, Facebook had to struggle to capture the Indian market as Orkut has already established itself as the leading social network.
Google has succeeded in convincing me regarding the advantages of Plus. I love Circles, since it allows me to mix my life-stream and news-stream in a manner that is most relevant and helpful. I find Hangouts and Huddles addictive. I love Google bar with its smart notifications. And, these are convincing enough reasons for me to switch to Plus. Unfortunately, most users don’t mind using a slightly inferior product as long as it gets the job done. This is exemplified by the fact that currently my most inactive Circle is the one having my school friends, who are mostly not tech enthusiasts. Most people swear by the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy. Google will have to prove that Facebook’s social graph is broken in order to succeed.
Also, if Facebook wants to, it can bridge the gap with Plus fairly quickly. A short while back Facebook announced video calling powered by Skype. Yes, Google Hangout absolutely pwns Facebook’s current Skype integration, but nothing is preventing Facebook from adding multi-user support a few months down the line. Even more significantly, Facebook already supports lists as well as selective publishing of status updates. In fact, as correctly pointed out by Yishan Wong, Facebook’s filters are far more granular than Google’s. The problem is that Facebook does filtering based on networks rather than friend lists, and the current user interface doesn’t really expose these features very well. Again, these are things that Facebook could easily change should it start hemorrhaging. Google will have to constantly iterate and innovate, as it has successfully done with Chrome, in order to take on Facebook.
Wong argues that Facebook doesn’t expose the advanced filtering options because it doesn’t believe that most users will find them to be useful, which brings me to Google’s second biggest challenge user retention. Although the idea behind Circles is really neat and well implemented, it is something that might appear to be dauntingly confusing to the layman. Over the past week itself, I have had to explain exactly how circles work at least a dozen times. Even more alarmingly, many tech savvy users also appear to be confused by the myriad of visibility options offered by Google+. It’s certainly not a good sign to see panelists on tech podcasts like TWiT dazed and befuddled by certain aspects of Plus.
Google has done a pretty good job at making Circles intuitive and friendly. It smartly offers introductory videos to users on the welcome screen, while explaining the core philosophy of the pillars of Plus in a sentence. However, will that be enough? Scoble believes that his mom and dad will never use Plus. However, can Google Plus gather a sizable enough audience to realize its true vision and purpose without adoption from the moms and dads?
Google faces an uphill challenge, but if anyone can do it, it is Google, and with Plus they actually have a fighting chance. Google’s biggest advantage is that it already has a massive audience, and the “Google bar” lends a stickiness to Plus. Once Google rolls it out across its various properties, the Google bar will play a critical role in user retention by encouraging user participation.
I used to be convinced that Twitter won’t go mainstream, because Twitter is what the user makes it to be. To a new user, Twitter’s utility is far from apparent. I found that idea that normal users will ever figure out how to make Twitter interesting for themselves unlikely. However, it has already proved me wrong. Maybe Google Plus will also prove that my concerns are unfounded. Maybe people do really need Circles, but they don’t know it. Maybe Google will finally nail social.
To borrow Scoble’s analogy, the new car smell has yet to wear off, and Google Plus is currently in its honeymoon period. Things are only going to get rougher. Google Plus is still far from perfect. Google has to figure out how to reduce noise, make Sparks more useful, and make Circles less confusing for the masses. Nevertheless, Google’s Hangout feature was strong enough to make today’s Facebook video calling feature unveiling appear disappointing. Google succeeded in stealing Facebook’s thunder, and made Facebook and Zuckerberg look like Microsoft and Ballmer. If Google can keep this up, then two years down the line, the entire notion that Google doesn’t understand social will seem ludicrous.