Reality Check: Google Plus Is No Facebook Or Twitter Killer (But It Might Hurt WordPress And Tumblr)

Hey, did you hear? Google has a new social network!

It’s called Google Plus, and it’s kind of a big deal. At least, that’s what we’re being told. Over, and over, and over. Yep, Google Plus is the best thing since Facebook. In fact, it’s better than Facebook. And it’s better than Twitter. In fact, Google Plus is going to be the death of them both!

Poppycock. Not only is Google Plus one of the biggest examples of style-over-substance and over-hype that the Internet has seen, it will be prove to be absolutely no threat to the dominance of Facebook and Twitter within their respective niches.

And while there are some aspects of Google Plus that are fairly innovative (and have made it attractive to early adopters), other parts of the platform have been so poorly thought out and executed that it begs belief. Other highly-celebrated features flatter to deceive, whilst being all-but-ignored by those clapping the loudest.

The Hype

Google Plus has certainly arrived with considerable fanfare. Using the same approach that made Gmail so desirable, Google Plus launched as invite-only, with the platform open only to a lucky few. This wasn’t entirely random — Google was careful to pre-invite many thought leaders, bloggers and pundits in the tech space (particularly in Silicon Valley), as they were always going to have a lot to say. And say it loudly.

This created an early demand that probably hasn’t been matched in internet history. The Wall Street Journal reported that in just three weeks, Google+ has had 20 million unique visitors since its launch. Even Mark Zuckerberg signed up, quickly becoming the most-followed user on the network.

Of course, visitors isn’t the same thing as users, and users isn’t the same thing as active users. So how many people have signed up for Google+? Using a surname-based analysis system, Ancestor.com founder and statistician Paul Allen pegged the membership at 10 million on July 7, a feat achieved in just 16 days. As a comparison, it took Twitter 780 days and Facebook 852 days to reach the 10 million user mark.

I mean, look at this growth — insane!

Since then, Allen estimates that Google Plus is up to 18 million to 20 million users, all achieved in about three weeks. No wonder Zuck has signed up — he’ll have nowhere else to go at this rate.

The Reality

Google Plus seems exciting now because it’s new and shiny and lots of major tech players are giving it a decent amount of attention. But it’s deceptive, and underneath very little is actually going on.

Google Plus’ 20 million signups in such a small period of time certainly seems impressive. But this is Google, a well-established search giant that already boasts over a billion users. Couple that with the must-scratch-itch that is invite-only, and you have an influx that was both predictable and self-fulfilling.

But it’s not as good as it looks. For the week ending July 19, 2011, Experian Hitwise says that Google Plus had some 1.8 million visits. That number was up 283 percent from the previous week, but relatively it’s tiny, both compared to Facebook and Twitter, but also to the number of registered profiles on Google Plus.

If Google Plus actually has 20 million signups, that means that on any given day of that week only a fraction over a quarter of a million bothered to come back. That’s about 1.3 percent. Even if you assume there are only 10 million registered users, that’s still only 2.6 percent. It’s actually less than that, as number of those visits are from brand-new users.

Either way, it’s hardly a healthy stat for long-term growth. And anecdotally I’ve seen a lot of evidence of this myself. I’ve invited dozens and dozens of my friends to Google+, and of those who have bothered to sign up (probably less than half), the vast majority – easily 90% – have registered, had a quick look round and then promptly departed, never to return. The question I’m hearing again and again is: I already have Facebook and/or Twitter, so why do I need this?

The thing is, if you register on Google+ and follow a portion of the most-followed users – people like Danny Sullivan, Robert Scoble, Leo Laporte, Kevin Rose and Steve Rubel – you’ll start to believe that Google+ is the most popular thing, like, ever. Look at all those posts. More impressive, look at all those comments. Such engagement!

But it’s an illusion. These guys come with a ready-made audience, most of whom follow them pretty much anywhere. Google+ is the best thing that ever happened to them. This isn’t a criticism – they all produce first-class content. But just because they’re seeing a lot of reactions and getting a great response to their posts doesn’t mean everybody else is. In fact, virtually nobody else is. Try visiting the Google+ profiles of many of the people commenting in these guys’ posts. With a few exceptions, it’s a ghost town.

And Mark Zuckerberg racking up at least 350,000 followers isn’t proof of anything. Zuck could show up at MySpace and have 350,000 followers by the end of the day.

And let’s not forget that Google Plus had the help of Facebook and Twitter to generate all of this publicity. I don’t think we can credit this enough. A combined billion users (give or take some crossover) went completely nuts about Google Plus, with some 1.9 million tweets, 107,000 blog posts, 30,000 online news articles and 153,000 forum posts made about Google+ in the first two weeks of its launch. But this isn’t proof of success, as the vast majority of these people didn’t even have invites to the platform. It’s proof of hype, but also proof of the power of Facebook and Twitter, both of whom didn’t have the same help when they first opened their doors.

When it launched, Twitter had a little bit of help from Facebook. And Facebook had a little bit of help from MySpace, because it was so decidedly awful.

(Also, it’s worth observing that even with all this fuss, mentions of Google Plus were dwarfed by mentions of Facebook and Twitter over that same period.)

People have very short memories. When the much-derided Google Buzz opened it generated 9 million posts in the first 56 hours. It’s Google. These kinds of launches are inevitable. It doesn’t mean anything.

Where Google Got Social Right

Hangouts

Hangouts, the Google Plus live video chat, are proving very popular with a lot of users (although typically only when launched by somebody well-established and/or downright famous). Because Hangouts support multiple users, Google has one-upped Facebook’s one-on-one Skype integration, although it can’t be long until that also supports group video chat.

The User Interface

Google Plus looks great. So clean and minimalist, it totally reminds me of FriendFeed (more on that later).

Where Google Got Social Wrong (Again)

How about everywhere else?

Circles

This is being touted as Google Plus’ killer feature, as circles allow anyone to digitally organize their friends, as proposed by Paul Adam in his much-loved presentation, The Real Life Social Network. It’s so easy — simply drag and drop a friend into the circle of your choice. You can then click on any circle in your sidebar to see just content from those users. Even better, you can send your own content to any circle of your choice. Talk about targeted marketing!

The thing is: this is broken. Circles sound like a good idea on paper but in reality they don’t work. Why? Two main reasons. One, because people cannot digitally organize their friends by interest. And two, even if you could nobody talks about that same interest constantly and nothing else. In other words, a given person cannot be defined by something they like. Certainly not just that.

I’ll give you an example: Danny Sullivan. Danny is head of Search Engine Land and produces a ton of outstanding content about that space. I follow Danny on Google Plus, and filed him away in the appropriate circle. But the problem is that Danny doesn’t just talk about search engines. He also shares a lot of photos of sunsets and beaches and stuff like that. Which is fine — he can write about what he wants. Which, of course, is the crux of the issue. I could file Danny over multiple circles (search, tech, photos, sunsets, and so on) or I could keep him filed under one, but none of them are going to be accurate, because Danny Sullivan is not a robot, blindly mass-producing content about a finite number of subjects. He’s a person, and people aren’t easily pigeonholed.

This is an ongoing issue. Not only is the circle filing system likely to be inaccurate, but to make it even remotely useful you have to keep modifying and revising your circles as you start to follow new people and existing followers prove themselves to be somebody else.

Bottom line: most people won’t bother. They’ll just start to file everybody under one big circle, and put it up with it. And that’s exactly what will happen when you group too many people into one circle, especially if they’re pundits or self-promoters — the circle becomes unusable, almost instantly. A veritable nightmare of ramblings and noise.

This is the problem when you don’t have a character limit on status updates. Twitter has 140, Facebook has 420, and Google+ has no limit, at least not one that I’ve seen reached. Some of the updates are so long that they fill up multiple screens. Seriously: who wants that? Who signed up to see that? If I wanted to see every word of every article you’ve written I’d visit your blog. And cherry pick.

That’s the problem with circles as an input measure. For output, they’re even worse. Google thought they were being really smart by letting us, as individuals, decide who goes where, and then broadcasting to them accordingly. But as a system it simply does work, because of the reasons I’ve already outlined: I don’t know what you like. And you don’t know what I like. You might think you do, and Google might even be able to provide you with an algorithmic guesstimate that’s pretty accurate at this moment right now, but come tomorrow things will have changed. Come next week and next month and they’ll have changed completely. I’m not all about Twitter, and I’m not all about social media. I don’t want to see everything ever written about those things. I don’t see no ring on this finger. You don’t own me!

As you can see the way the output part of circles has been defined is backward. I shouldn’t be tagging you by your interests — you should be tagging yourself based on your own interests. You know what you like. Nobody else does. And you know that tomorrow you might not like that thing anymore. But I’ll still think your its biggest fan, blinding pushing my now-irritating content your way 24/7. Right up until you unfollow me. Hooray! Everybody wins.

If Google had set up circles so people tagged themselves, it could be a world-beater. I’d set up a Circle called Twitter, and other people would opt into it, ike a mailing list, circa 2011. Visit my profile, check out my different circles of topics, and sign up for what you want. That’s a winning content delivery system. And it will work because users choose what they want to see, rather than the broadcaster picking for them. Moreover, I could quickly see which of my circles was the most popular, and focus my efforts on that.

To me, the biggest proof that circles don’t work is the way that the Google Plus superstars like Scoble, Rubel and Sullivan are using them. Namely, they don’t. They post everything they do public. And why wouldn’t they? Who wants less people to see their content? It’s fundamentally opposed to everything we’ve ever been taught. Sure, targeted marketing certainly has its place, but only when people opt-in. Not the other way around.

And let’s remember that Facebook has had this feature forever, except over there it’s called Groups. And nobody uses it. Why would it be any different on Google?

Sparks

Are you having a laugh, Google?

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a fundamentally useless, bolted-on-at-the-last-minute worthless piece of crap.

Search

The Google Plus search feature is… non-existent. You can find people and you can search via sparks (so sweet), but that’s it.

I mean: this is Google, right? Who thought leaving out a search box was a good idea?

Brand Profiles

Google Plus didn’t launch with brand profiles, promising to add them later, and announced that they only wanted real people to make profiles. Specifically: no non-humans (which I have to say I welcome). Google warned users that they’d remove any brand profiles that were set up. And on July 21, that’s exactly what they did, much to the chagrin of those involved. All except for Mashable, whose excess of 100,000 followers was saved and renamed as founder Pete Cashmore. All the other accounts — which included some major players such as Coca Cola and Good Morning America — were nuked. Talk about one rule for one.

The Scoble Effect

I’ve touched upon this a couple of times in this post but it needs more explanation. Basically, Robert Scoble ruins everything. He’s the Jack Nicklaus of social networks, because when you factor in what he’s done and doing compared to everybody else, it all falls apart. There is no comparison. He’s out there, alone, like Jonah versus the whale.

This isn’t me knocking the guy. I like him. Scoble is the early adopter personified, and gives every new major social network 100 percent of his attention. He follows bazillions of other users and seems to read everything they all post. He also generates a lot of his own content, all of which gets a bazillion comments.

So what happens is if you want Robert Scoble in your network, you are basically saying: I do not want to use this network. In fact, I want it ruined. This was true on FriendFeed, it was true on Google Buzz and it’s even truer on Google Plus. It isn’t an issue on Twitter because of the strict character limit. But when anything goes, then it’s game over. As I said, Scoble ruins everything. He even acknowledges this himself. It’s the litmus test of every new social platform.

But it’s not just Robert who breaks Google Plus. It’s all the other power users, too. Because Google Plus has relatively no controls over content, if you add more than a couple of these guys to your stream then Google Plus becomes essentially unusable. With their continuous updates and pages and pages of comments, they drown out everybody else so much that it’s both impressive and completely infuriating. Don’t worry — very soon you won’t care, because you’ll have stopped using Google+.

FriendFeed Again

To me, Google Plus is basically FriendFeed all over again. Bigger platform, and beefed-up, sure, but it’s essentially the same tech crowd (almost exactly), each of whom are showing the same enthusiasm, which delivers the same hype, which ultimately produces the same lack of returning users, simply because very few of them care about the same things to the same degree.

On that initial visit, Google Plus is just as overwhelming for most people as Friendfeed was. (And I liked FriendFeed, but it was never going to appeal to non-technical folk.) It doesn’t have the simplicity of Twitter and it doesn’t have the familiarity (and comfort) of Facebook. Instead, it sits somewhere between the two, satisfying neither one user nor the other, and ultimately appealing to neither.

Why Google Plus Is No Threat To Facebook

The people who are most active about the threat posed by Facebook, or what it is that they don’t like about the platform, are often the same people mentioned in this article. That is, early adopters, tech pundits, web entrepreneurs, journalists and high-profile bloggers. But cool as a lot of these guys are, they aren’t normal people. They aren’t the majority. They aren’t the hundreds of millions of people who use Facebook to chat with friends and family, and to play games. There’s fundamentally no reason whatsoever for these same people to leave Facebook and move over to Google Plus. Even if Google Plus copies Facebook exactly there’s no reason, as they already have what they need on Facebook.

Yep, it’s certainly true that nothing lasts forever — MySpace and AOL are the best (and increasingly cliched) examples of that. But at 750 million users plus, Facebook isn’t going away anytime soon. And Google Plus isn’t enough of a temptation to make any significant dent in that user base.

Why Google Plus Is No Threat To Twitter

People who want Twitter — that is, the majority of users, not the loudest users – want it because of what it is: a short, quick messaging service that, if one follows the right profiles (and ‘right’ is of course a very relative term – what’s right for you?) provides an easy (and powerful) way to position yourself right on the edge of the information curve.

Those same short updates also works brilliantly on most mobile phones, making Twitter very addictive.

If Google Plus has any appeal to the man in the street, it’s for vastly different reasons than why they’re using Twitter.

Google Plus As A Blogging Platform

Because there aren’t any limits to content updates, GooglePlus does work as a blogging system, and it could become a viable alternative to WordPress, Tumblr and Posterous for bloggers.

We’ve already seen some evidence of this with people like Kevin Rose and Bill Gross pointing their personal web domains directly at their Google profiles. Of course, they can reverse this any time they like, but it could be a trend of things to come, and it will be interesting to see if Google+ begins to take some share away from the established blogging platforms.

The Big Question

Google Plus could top 100 might users with little or no effort — because it’s Google. The key thing is what it takes to get the platform to the next level in social networking: The much-desired billion users. So let’s ask this question again: why would the average person leave Facebook for Google Plus, when it’s mostly the same and what’s different is a bit of a mess? Why on earth would they leave Twitter, when they’re a complete apple and oranges comparison?

Why do they have to leave at all? Surely there’s room on the block for another major social network — can’t we all just get along? So here’s what I think is the biggest question: Can people really cope with the work it takes to successfully manage three social networks?

More importantly, will they?

Because if they can’t, or won’t, it doesn’t matter what Google Plus does, what features it introduces and what fixes it makes to those already on the system. Because, relatively at first, and later in actuality, almost nobody will be paying attention.

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