The demise of Google+

Phil Bradley reflects on the lessons we all should learn from the shutdown of Google+.

On the 8th of October 2018 Google announced that it was shutting down its social network, Google+ for consumers, and it will be closing in August 2019. They explained this by saying that they had low user engagement and the system also had a software error which had potentially exposed the data of many thousands of users.

This is a rather ignominious end to Google’s foray into social networking, but given the company's track record it’s not very surprising at all. When the search engine started up, the Internet was a much simpler environment within which to work and make money - create a search engine that indexes webpages, link the searches to adverts, display those adverts as appropriate and watch the money roll in! However, as the internet has developed, this approach has become less all encompassing as social media has become the preferred method of creating and sharing content. As a result, the rise in importance of Facebook, with its walled garden, to say nothing of other social media networks has increasingly left Google out in the cold, since searchers can’t access all of the data that they want to, because Google itself can’t access it.

It was therefore logical for Google to try and create its own network, and link it into its other properties such as YouTube. Google+ was not its first attempt either. If you have a long memory you can probably recall Google Wave and Google Buzz, neither of which ignited much passion among internet users. As a result Google really needed a social networking success, and so put a lot of effort into G+, even cannibalising search functionality from Google search. (Again, if you have a long memory you could prepend a + symbol to force Google to pay particular attention to the word you were focusing on). G+ launched in 2011 and by the end of the year had over 90 million users, and by October 2013, over 540 million users. However, this figure was never accurate, since anyone creating a Google account also got a G+ account as well. As early as April 2014 it was referred to as the ‘Walking Dead’. ( Despite work and rebranding the network simply failed to take off; 90% of sessions lasted for less than five seconds. (

So what actually went wrong? In a nutshell, Google has never understood social media properly. Like Microsoft, who underestimated the internet, Google had created its own success story which it believed could not fail; everything was predicated on webpages. Designs for the failed networks came from engineers, not end users, so their attempts were never easy to use, certainly not (in my opinion) transparent or intuitive. By the G+ launch date Facebook was already the key social network, and Google simply wasn’t able to come up with a unique function that Facebook didn’t have, or couldn’t copy.  Potential users couldn’t see the point in moving from a system where they already had links to their friends, had created their own groups and were already happily interacting. Google believed its own hype, couldn’t appreciate the waning importance of web pages and didn’t listen to users.

It’s essentially the same old story, different resource. Google pays little attention to end users, decides to pension off excellent search functionality for no good reason and always thinks it knows best. The famous phrase “Don’t be evil” was removed from its corporate code of conduct in May of this year and a good case could be made to suggest it’s been replaced with “Believe in our hype”. Of course, this isn’t the end of Google in any way, shape, form or degree, but what it does illustrate with stunning clarity is that Google gets things wrong more often than it gets them right. It’s no longer the faultless poster child of the internet, and nor has it been for many, many years.