The Renaissance of Google+
Google has been trying to create a profitable social networking site for years. From the years of 2008–2010 they even made several attempts, including Google Friend Connect (launched 2008, terminated 2012) and Google Buzz (launched 2010, terminated 2011). After having a couple failed launches under their belt, Google used what it had learned to create their next social networking project: Google+.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2011. Facebook was dominating the social media sphere and everyone wanted a piece of the action. Following the launch of their less successful ventures, Google finally thought they were headed in the right direction with Google+. Created by Vic Gundotra and Bradley Horowitz, Google+ sought to launch itself into the social media universe to compete head-on with Facebook. Google+ presented itself with a model parallel to the one Mark Zuckerberg had so successfully implemented with Facebook. Similar to its competitor, Google+ allowed users to create profiles, upload and edit pictures, post statuses, and connect with their peers through likes and comments.
Unlike Facebook, however, Google+ allowed its users to have multi-person instant message and video chats. The platform also allowed users to create smaller social circles within their overall friend network. This feature made it easier for users to divide up their network and decide what circle of connections they wanted to see certain content. For example, if I had a specific circle consisting solely of my friends who are vegetarians, I would post a picture of my latest veggie culinary creation to that circle only. That way those who would be interested would have access to it, but it wouldn’t clutter the stream (timeline) of my other connections. With these unique features leading the way, Google+forged ahead, officially launching their social media platform on June 15, 2011.
Now, let’s pause here and reenter the year of 2016.
Now, The New York Times has compared Google’s social networking endeavor to a ghost town. But, how did this happen when it seemed as though the platform had so much potential for growth? One reason could be this: it did not do enough to differentiate itself from already existing platforms like Facebook or Myspace. According to Kraut and Resnick’s design claim 16, in order to be successful one must convey “a succinct unique selling proposition attracts members.” Yes, Google+ had features (like the few discussed above) that set it apart from already existing communities. However, when launching their product, they spent less time on making their product different from the rest and more time trying to advertising how Google+ was like those other sites but better. By advertising the aspects similar to those that already existed on other sites, the product came off as looking almost equal to Facebook and suffered from individuals not seeing a reason to switch platforms.
Another reason growth stalled could be that, once they realized they were having trouble getting users from Facebook, Google began making themselves the middle man involved in connecting too many platforms, i.e. Gmail and YouTube. Instead of being able to create a separate YouTube account to post content and interact with other accounts, Google+ accounts became integrated into YouTube and became the primary way that individuals could be active and leave comments on videos. In design claim 12, Kraut and Resnick explain that “A larger community leads to lower match value in bond-based communities.” Yes, by connecting Google+ accounts to things like YouTube, Google raised their number of active users, but the amount of time spent on Google+ only averaged out being around 3–7 minutes per user. Most people were creating Google+ accounts in order to participate in the communities that they were already a part of that could now only be accessed through Google+; they didn’t necessarily care about using the platform itself. In fact, many users saw Google+ as more of a nuisance than anything else. Additionally, a whole slew of longtime YouTube users were upset because, since Google+ required that an account be made using an individual’s real name, the anonymity they once had in the YouTube community was compromised. In order to avoid this, YouTube users who wanted to stay anonymous would not go anywhere near Google+ or, in some more extreme cases, would avoid both platforms altogether. So, knowing what we know now, how do we reimagine Google+ so that it gains the number of users hoped for to back in 2011? With some help from Robert Kraut and Paul Resnick and their book Building Successful Online Communities, I propose a relaunch of the site.
Much of the positive feedback about Google+ has stemmed from its use of circles and communities and how those can enhance the everyday lives of Google+ users. Google+ uses an organized system to create communities of like-minded people or of people with similar interests and gives them a forum on which to connect and discuss. In simpler terms, the circles and communities help to break down and organize larger social networks into spaces that are easier to traverse. Additionally, being able to join specific communities (for example, a community about a TV show) have allowed individuals to connect to people they have never even met before. It has been likened to a more social LinkedIn and, although being slightly less formal, users have found it as a useful site to find and connect to peers in their fields nonetheless and even get professional recognition and job opportunities.
Kraut and Resnick’s idea of “subdividing spaces after they become active to increase net benefits for participants” is relevant here. If Google were to redesign the site to be a space where users could go to network with people of similar interests, rather than to create networks with those they already know, it would be set further apart from Facebook. Instead of being a “connection invitation” based network (like Facebook’s friending policy), all who signed up would be entered into the Google+ pool. Once within it, they choose what communities to become a part of and narrow down their personal Google+ pool from there. You would only see posts from and interact with communities you joined, significantly cutting down on unwanted clutter.
In order to help users with the process of finding and connecting with communities in the space, Google+ would follow the advice given by design claim 10 and create navigation aids and recommendation systems to help individuals find spaces within Google+ that would be relevant to them. In order to create a more accurate recommendation system, the Google+ sign up process would include a short form that inquired about interests and hobbies, as well as education and career path. Employing the information gathered during this process, the recommendation system would be able to sort through the communities on the site and be able to make more accurate recommendations. As time goes on and an individual begins to interact with the site more and more, the recommendation system would only improve as it gathers an increasing amount of information about the user.
To manage the size of the communities as the network grows, Google+ will take advantage of the already existing “circle” function. For example, if someone on Google+ creates an open housing network with sublet and rental listings in New York City, users will then be able to create separate circles for specific neighborhoods within the larger community. That way, someone looking to move to Brooklyn would be able to join community, but only interact with the Williamsburg or Bushwick circles, cutting out a lot of information that would no be relevant to them, making their search process a lot less stressful.
Using this structure as its main appeal, I would market this site two different ways: to the general public as an informal way to connect to new people with similar interests and to businesses who could use it as a way to create an internal communication network as well as a platform to directly connect to its customers. Businesses could create their own Google+ community, keeping internal employee communication within a locked circle, and have different departments broken down into separate circles within that. For its customers, the company could have a separate public circle that users of Google+ could connect to that would allow employees of the company to speak directly to them and would allow the company to advertise new deals and products straight to their customer base. Additionally, the company could also use its community to see what it is the customers are liking and disliking about their services in a way that is more concrete and organized that a 140 character tweet.
In summary, I would rebrand Google+ as a space for individuals to find and connect to others with similar interests and hobbies. Instead of the Facebook-style social networking site it was launched as, it would be seen as more of a “community-based” site where those who wanted to connect to others with shared interests could do so. This could be a space for Game of Thrones fans to meet and discuss the show with other fans. It could also be a space for businesses to interact with fans of their product and help them communicate more effectively with those brand-loyal consumers or it could be a space where campus clubs could go to create an open communication network. Allowing for a more open network of communication amongst users with specific interests would hopefully increase intrinsic motivation to post and be active on the site. It would also help cut down on information overload that can sometimes be a problem on social media. Yes, there is potential for the user-base to be smaller, but having a smaller user-base with more consistent activity may be better for Google+ in the long run.