When Google+ Communities was launched back in December 2012, it was at a time I was trying to be active on the network.

What better way of showing my support for a network we’re frequently being reminded not to neglect than by jumping on this new feature?

So I quickly and enthusiastically signed up to a handful of the raft of communities that were created that first week and even started my own. But, my participation in said communities lasted for about as long as my enthusiasm for Google+ itself, which is to say: not very long. 

In this post I am going to explore Google+ Communities from a fresh perspective, especially now that the feature has had just over a year to mature.

Is the feature enough to make me start using Plus again? And would I start recommending businesses invest their time there again?

Why should I want to return?

From a friends and family point of view, I would never use Google+ as I’m more or less the only person that has an account (or has even heard of it).

From a professional perspective, why would I bother being particularly active on Google+ when the majority of the conversations are happening on Twitter?

Sure, I would continue posting a link to new content I wanted to promote as a public post, but outside of that, I couldn’t justify spending any more time than that. But I’m going to rethink that perspective and give Google+ another shot, for one reason only: Communities. 

It is easy to underestimate the amount of people who are active in communities when they’re part of a network you’d be forgiven for forgetting. It wasn’t too long ago when I was surprised to see a surge in traffic from Google+ arriving at mark-making*’s website.

Almost all of the traffic was going to an animated HTML5 infographic we designed in 2012 and upon further inspection discovered that a link to it had been posted in a Google+ community. This wasn’t even a particularly popular post so I was reminded that perhaps it’s too soon to completely neglect Google+. 

I also think that Google+ Communities is a wonderful idea. Just how forums give people a place to generate discussion, Communities allows groups of like-minded individuals convene to talk about anything they want, all within a single platform (with no need for multiple login details).

I would love the chance to talk about subjects I’m passionate out with people I’m not already connected with, and on Twitter this is only really possible with hashtag chats (like EcomChat organised by Dan Barker and James Gurd).

But I always suspected that I’d never see much discussion going on, judging by how little my contacts used Google+. Is that a correct assumption?

Are the communities active?

One of the first things I was surprised to see when I returned to Communities was that some are very active. I jumped straight into the 32,205 member Google Analytics community and on Friday the 23rd alone there were 13 fresh posts, not including any of the comments.

Trying something significantly smaller like the Content Strategy community with 4,004 members showed that two or three fresh posts per day was the norm. Admittedly, most the posts were posted by the same people in Content Strategy, but it’s easy to see that some communities big and small are enjoying active members who post questions, links to relevant content, and helpful advice.  

If you’re looking to give Google+ Communities a go yourself, I’ve cherry picked eight of the most interesting looking examples.   

I’d love it if you could let me know in the comments some of the great communities I’m missing out on. 

My fear with this little experiment of mine is that I’ll discover that Google+ Communities is a mostly dead feature on a social network that if it weren’t for Google making it almost mandatory for digital marketers (e.g. Authorship and Local), I’d have largely forgotten about.

I really don’t want this to be my discovery because in concept I think Communities is a really wonderful idea with an enormous amount of potential.

The examples of active communities I gave earlier certainly showed that they’re worth trying out, but at the same time, it wasn’t easy finding a list of digital marketing specific examples that seemed active or interesting enough to bother with. 

But how can businesses benefit?

Okay, this all might be great for me, but what about for businesses: are communities a good marketing tool? Quite possibly…

Judging from my experiences with the referral traffic Google+ can potentially drive to a piece of content, it would be wise to invest some time in getting known and building some rapport in a community related to a subject you’re likely to want to promote some content in.

Then, when the time comes and you wish to get more people interested in a new piece of content, then it won’t seem as unnatural. Provided your content is good, people are likely to welcome the contribution. However, I have noticed a lot of what amounts to self-promotional spam; people writing a sentence followed by a link to their latest terrible blog post that was written for no other reason than SEO.

It should be up to Community owners and moderators to prevent this sort of spam, but it might not always be easy to decide on what should be deemed as spam and what shouldn’t be. 

Communities can also be useful for businesses who want a way of getting their customers and target audience connected in some way that’s outside of their own website or forum. Let’s suppose you were a software company; you might start a help and technical support community (instead of a forum) for people to post questions and help each other.

This is certainly simpler than building your own forum and might even be more effective (but ask yourself whether or not your customers are likely to be on or create an account for Google+).

I have also seen many communities that were started by businesses originally. For example, Conversion Heroes, which I linked to above, was started by Unbounce. It found an empty niche for a conversion optimisation themed community and managed to build it up in a way that seems to be genuinely helpful to people without simply pushing its software.

But this is going to be hard to do well (without time and care) and without finding an unutilised niche you’re probably going to have limited success.  

Conversion Heroes Google+ community

It isn’t just Communities that might bring me back

When I started thinking about and writing this post, it was before Matt Cutts came out with his latest blow to over-abused SEO tactics a week ago, declaring that “guest blogging is done; it’s just gotten too spammy.” Content has always been valuable to SEO and with guest blogging there was an easy and effective way of building links too. 

Now, I’ve never blogged for the sole purpose of getting links, but… it was always a nice bonus.

As Kevin Gibbons was quoted as saying in Graham’s post linked above, if I were doing it for links I wouldn’t have written more than one post for Econsultancy. I’ve always come back for more because I love the feedback I get from a genuine digital marketing community and I’m getting my name in front of a large audience who wouldn’t otherwise know much about me.

But I read a comment to Graham’s post that said that perhaps this is a move to push Authorship and Author Rank (if that even exists); if guest blogging for links is no longer effective, perhaps guest blogging with a connected Google+ profile will become demonstrably useful for SEO purposes?

This is harder to game because those with the highest Author Rank will have to be writing for the best blogs and sites, and that’s not supposed to be easy. I’m not saying I believe this, but it certainly reminds me that Authorship is a reason not to disregard Google+ too quickly. 

So, will it work?

To conclude, I don’t know whether Communities is going to bring me back to considering Google+ as a network I’d actually use on a regular basis. But, anything’s worth a shot, right?

What about you… do you bother with Google+? And what do you think of Communities: is it a great feature or is it just not established enough?