Google Plus: The problem isn’t design, it’s a lack of demand

While Google continues to maintain that its Google+ social network is doing just fine, thank you very much — with a user base of about 100 million, according to the web giant — skepticism about the actual popularity of the service remains high. New York Times writer Nick Bilton argues in a recent post that the problem with Google+ is poor design, since new social networks like Path and Instagram have managed to gain a substantial audience. As others have pointed out, however, those networks are much more specific than Google+ wants to be: Google’s vision is of a Facebook-style network that encompasses hundreds of millions of people and a broad range of activities. The problem is that no one seems to want that except Google.
A recent Wall Street Journal story on Google+ painted a picture of a service that is “a virtual ghost town,” a network where users spent an average of just three minutes a month, according to statistics from web measurement firm comScore — in other words, a blink of an eye compared to the six or seven hours that typical Facebook users spend on the site. While comScore’s traffic numbers suffer from a number of problems, including the fact that they don’t measure mobile usage, that still indicates a massive gap between Google+ and Facebook. And measuring mobile probably wouldn’t help Google+ much anyway, since its mobile apps still leave a lot to be desired.

Google still sees Google+ as an “identity service”

Google responded fairly swiftly to the WSJ piece by talking to Bilton and the New York Times about how great Google+ is doing. Vic Gundotra, the executive in charge of the network, made the case that the company had “never seen anything grow this fast, ever” and that Google was more than happy with the usage of the service. Gundotra said that according to the company’s internal measurements, more than 50 million people use the network daily — which sounds pretty impressive, until you notice that this number represents people who have used “Google+ enhanced products.”
That means anyone who has logged into YouTube or or Picasa, or done any number of other things that are tied to Google+. Said Gundotra:

This is just the next version of Google. Everything is being upgraded. We already have users. We’re now upgrading them to what we consider Google 2.0.

In other words, Google sees its network as a social layer that is integrated into all of its other services, as VP of product Bradley Horowitz argued last year when he said Google+ would become part of everything the company did — and chairman Eric Schmidt said that he saw the network as an “identity service” that would be incorporated into all of Google’s products. That vision is presumably what convinced Google that favoring its own Google+ content in search results via the “Search Plus Your World” personalization feature was a good idea, instead of being (as some see it) a betrayal of its previous promise to users about providing unbiased and objective search results.

So it’s easy to see why Google would want a network like Google+ — among other things, it provides all kinds of data about users that could be useful for ad targeting (which seemed to be the real impetus behind the company’s initial insistence that users provide real names instead of pseudonyms). But why do users need it? That one is a lot harder to answer, and the short version may be simply that they don’t. While the network has caught on with certain groups of users, including the photographic community and early adopters such as blogger and uber-geek Robert Scoble, there remains little that would compel users who are already attached to Twitter or Facebook to spend large amounts of time on Google+.

What does Google+ offer that other networks don’t?

Bilton argues that new networks like Path and Instagram have captured a large and devoted user base, so therefore Google+ must be suffering from other problems such as poor design. But I’m inclined to agree with developer and designer Tom Coates that Google’s service is actually quite well designed in many respects, as one would expect from something that was crafted in large part by legendary Apple designer Andy Hertzfeld, the man behind the Macintosh and other products. The way the Google+ web version functions is actually quite impressive in many respects, especially when compared to most of the other socially-oriented services that have come out of Google.
I think Path and Instagram, both of which I use and enjoy, offer different aspects of social networking to users. It’s true that Path’s design and usability are excellent, and they make it a pleasure to use the app — but it is the small and defined nature of the social graph one has on the service (which is restricted to 150 connections) that makes it really useful. And with Instagram, it is focused on the simple act of sharing a photo and posting comments, and that focus makes it appealing in a way that Google+ is not, and likely never will be. And if I want to share with a larger group, then there is Facebook.
As a former Googler argued in a recent blog post about his departure from the company, the single biggest problem with Google+ is that no one needs it except Google. Do some people like and enjoy using it? Clearly there are some who do. But they don’t need it in the same way they need other networks like Facebook. Whenever I use Google+, I feel like I am doing Google a favor, but it’s not clear what I get out of it. Until Google can change that kind of perception, its network is going to seem a lot like one user’s devastating putdown, which compared it to a cemetery — plenty of residents, but not much activity.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Nevada Tumbleweed and Steve Jurvetson.