Google announced Monday that it was officially shuttering Google+ for consumers as one of a number of measures to counteract a data breach that occurred on the platform seven months ago (more on that a bit later).
The news has been met with a collective shrug of indifference from most of the social media world, along with a litany of jokes on Twitter to the tune of “Wait, people were still using Google+?”
Google has apparently announced they are shutting down #GooglePlus
Leading thousands to ask the important question "Google+ was still around?"
— Strain40-Boo (@Strain42) October 9, 2018
Whoa Whoa Whoa!!!
Wait a goddamn minute—
— A Liberal Marine (@USMCLiberal) October 8, 2018
#GooglePlus has finally gone!
— Tom (@tomlangan) October 8, 2018
Even before this final nail in the coffin, Google+ was already infamous as one of Google’s biggest flops: relevant and interesting for a brief period between 2011 and 2013, and otherwise yet another headstone cluttering the graveyard of “Social Networks We Actually Thought Might Challenge Facebook (More Fool Us)”.
Yes, Google+ still had active users and groups – its design wasn’t bad, and after the initial hype died down (and down, and down) it evolved into a half-decent community for professionals and serious hobbyists. I’m a member of one of the best remaining marketing groups, Semantic Search Marketing, which is probably the definitive community for advice and news on structured data and SEO. There’s even a Change.org petition to keep Google+ alive which has so far managed to amass more than 10,000 signatures and anguished messages from stalwart users of the platform.
But Google+ has been living on borrowed time for a long time. It stands as a testament to how difficult it is, even for a company with all of Google’s clout and resources, to build a successful social network. Its continued existence was a joke and an embarrassment to Google, and even attempts to streamline it into something more niche wouldn’t have solved that.
Still – it’s finally gone, and at least now, seven years after its inception, marketers can finally stop pretending that Google+ has any relevance whatsoever.
Google Plus still has its fans – but it isn’t enough to save the social network
Data breach: The final straw, or a convenient excuse?
Probably the biggest actual news in this story is the revelation that Google+ experienced a massive data breach that exposed the private data of up to 500,000 Google accounts to developers using one of the platform’s APIs – and kept it quiet for seven months.
The Wall Street Journal, whose report on the data breach has much more detail than I’m going to go into here, reports that Google withheld the news of the breach from its users due to fears of regulatory scrutiny and reputational damage. The bug that exposed user data was discovered in March 2018 – at the exact same time that Facebook was struggling to fend off a wave of global anger over revelations of data mishandling prompted by the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
There’s no doubt it would have been a spectacularly bad moment for Google to reveal a large-scale data breach – but it’s also unlikely that the revelation that Google covered up the breach for seven months will help much, either.
Google revealed that it would be sunsetting Google+ for consumers in response to the findings of an in-depth privacy review known as “Project Strobe” (why do these things always have such ominous names?). According to Google, Project Strobe revealed that “there are significant challenges in creating and maintaining a successful Google+ product that meets consumers’ expectations”.
If it really took Google seven years and an in-depth investigation to come to that conclusion, then I will genuinely eat my hat.
Very few people are under the illusion that the data breach is anything but a convenient excuse for Google to officially kill off a product that has been all but dead for years now. Google had already started closing down inactive pages on the platform in March (hmmm, what suspicious timing), in a move that seemed to signal the beginning of the end.
Google’s revamp of the platform in 2017 was probably the last serious attempt by Google to inject some life into its doomed social network, but even that was seen as a kind of “death”: Search Engine Journal’s Matt Southern announced that Google would be “killing off Google+” on 24th January, the date that Google stopped allowing users to switch back to the classic version of Google+.
Basically, everyone has been waiting for Google+ to finally give up the ghost for a very long time.
Was a “Google social network” always doomed to fail?
Google+ has been on life support for so long that it’s had plenty of time to rack up post-mortems, retrospectives and examinations of exactly where Google went wrong with its foray into social media.
Most date to 2014 or 2015 (Mashable published one of the definitive deconstructions of what happened to Google+ in August 2015, describing it as a “very expensive attempt to unseat Facebook”), but scepticism has dogged Google+ since its creation. Just a month after Google+ was launched, ZDnet published ‘Three signs Google+ is here to stay (And two that it’s doomed)’, citing Google’s growing list of failed ventures, including Google Buzz, Google Wave, and Google Health, as well as early gaffes involving deleted user profiles and banned celebrities.
Now, every high-profile venture will attract scepticism – especially a new social network, given that the list of failed social networks is even longer than Google’s list of abandoned projects. Much like viral videos, social networks become popular thanks to a combination of luck, timing, a few good features, and a boost from someone high-profile. It’s almost impossible to engineer deliberately.
But there’s another reason why I think that Google+ was always going to end up the way that it did: because it was owned by Google, and Google – now and then – is inextricable from search and SEO. Any social network owned by Google was always going to be viewed as a potential rankings boost and would always be seen as a marketing tool rather than as a genuine community.
A few months ago, Benjamin Boman, a digital marketing consultant, published an assessment of the state of Google+ in 2018 which contained some telling descriptions of groups with “obvious link spammers” and “mainly listicle repostings”. Some had shut their doors due to the sheer volume of spam.
You might argue that this is a symptom of Google+’s demise rather than a cause, but it’s hard to be sure. Moderators of Google+ groups were always going to have their work cut out fending off link-building opportunists, requiring a significant investment of time and effort in making communities work on the platform.
Would Google+’s proposition ever have been good enough to make that worthwhile?
Still, it’s over and done now – right? After this last wave of retrospectives (which I am admittedly contributing to) has died down, we can all finally move on and go back to predicting the demise of Twitter, or commentating on Facebook’s attempts to dig itself out of an increasingly deep hole.
Well… almost. Google+ will still be online until August 2019, giving its most ardent fans ten more months to enjoy the platform (and marketers ten more months to endure post-mortems).
After that, it will be curtains – for the consumer version of Google+. But Google has promised that Google+ will live on as an enterprise product:
Our review showed that Google+ is better suited as an enterprise product where co-workers can engage in internal discussions on a secure corporate social network. Enterprise customers can set common access rules, and use central controls, for their entire organization. We’ve decided to focus on our enterprise efforts and will be launching new features purpose-built for businesses.”
Is Google planning for Google+ to become a rival to Slack, Microsoft’s Teams, and Workplace by Facebook? We’ll have to wait and see. But it seems that we may be fated to continue hearing about Google+ for some time yet.
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