Why Google+ can never compete with Facebook

In June of 2011, Google+ debuted to a whole lot of hype and fanfare. Eight months later, Google+ still hasn't caught on and here's why it never will

The insurmountable challenges faced by Google+

In June of 2011, Google+ debuted to a whole lot of hype and fanfare. Undeterred by the failures of both Google Wave and Google Buzz, Google claimed to have learned a lot from its past missteps and was excited to show everyone that their latest social initiative was going to be different - that they finally had a social product people were actually going to use..

Eight months later, Google+ still hasn't caught on, and despite Google's assertions to the contrary, user engagement on the site is minimal and the threat it poses to Facebook is arguably nill. What's more, there's nothing to suggest that Google+ has what it takes to pose a realistic threat to Facebook down the line. Sure, Google has a host of popular web properties it can leverage to increase the Google+ user base, but the reality is that Google is a search and advertising company that simply doesn't get social networking.

When a company is genuinely passionate about something, it shines through in the products they release and the services they offer. Google is passionate about search, for example. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, upon founding Google, were singularly focused on gathering all of the world's information and making it accessible to the masses. The end result was the best damn search engine the world had ever seen.

But Google simply isn't passionate about social networking. That's to say, they view social networking as nothing more than a tool to generate more advertising revenue. Google wants to learn more about you, the consumer, so they can deliver hyper-targeted ads at premium rates.

And because advertising is the sole driving force behind Google's foray into social networking, it's no surprise that Google+ has done nothing to quell the 800 pound social gorilla that is Facebook. You see, Google didn't get into the social networking realm to improve it or enhance it, but to profit from it.

And it shows.

The chances of Google+ posing a serious threat to Facebook are laughable. The ubiquity of Facebook is unprecedented in the social space. Further, Google+ offers nothing to differentiate itself from any other social network. And no, Circles just doesn't cut it.

Below, I will highlight the inherent problems Google+ faces as it looks to take on Facebook. And chief among them is that Google got into the social space for all the wrong reasons.

Facebook's passion for social vs Google's appetite for $

As part of Facebook's IPO filing, Mark Zuckerberg wrote an enlightening letter to potential investors explaining Facebook's underlying philosophy. Say what you will about Facebook but the company genuinely cares about bringing people together through technology. Indeed, that's their primary and only objective. It's what they work on 24/7.

Zuckerberg's letter reads in part:

Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission — to make the world more open and connected.

...

We hope to strengthen how people relate to each other.

Even if our mission sounds big, it starts small — with the relationship between two people.

Personal relationships are the fundamental unit of our society. Relationships are how we discover new ideas, understand our world and ultimately derive long-term happiness.

At Facebook, we build tools to help people connect with the people they want and share what they want, and by doing this we are extending people’s capacity to build and maintain relationships.

People sharing more — even if just with their close friends or families — creates a more open culture and leads to a better understanding of the lives and perspectives of others.

...

Simply put: we don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services.

And we think this is a good way to build something. These days I think more and more people want to use services from companies that believe in something beyond simply maximizing profits.

Google, on the other hand, is at its core a search company that derives upwards of 96% of its revenue from advertising. To that end, most everything Google does is carried out with the express purpose of generating more advertising revenue. Why else do you think Google got into the Android business and gives the OS away for cheap? Because it wants those advertising dollars from mobile search.

Now contrast Zuckerberg's letter above with the following statements from Vic Gundotra, Google's Senior VP of social, who along with other Google executives, contextualizes the success of Google+ in advertising terms while conveniently dismissing other metrics like user engagement.

From an interview with the New York Times:

Google cited advertising as a prime example of the success of Google Plus. Mr. Gundotra said that any advertisement on Google that has a “social annotation” to it, specifically someone who has clicked the +1 button on an ad, is experiencing a drastic increase in engagement.

“We are seeing 5 to 10 percent click-through-rate uplift on any ad that has a social annotation on our own Web sites,” Mr. Gundotra said. ”We have been in this business for a long time, and there are very few things that give you a 5 to 10 percent increase on ad engagement.”

Steve Jobs once said that Apple cares about money because it enables them to make revolutionary products they love to use. This sentiment was echoed in Zuckerberg's letter above. Google, on the other hand, doesn't hide the fact that it does things a little bit differently. For Google, ad revenue is the only metric that really matters.

Now don't get me wrong, there's no question that individual teams within Google are exceedingly passionate about what they do. For example, Google's search team is constantly tweaking its search algorithm to deliver better results. Similarly, I have no doubt that Andy Rubin and Google's Android team at large are intensely focused on creating a more engaging and useful smartphone experience for users.

But as a corporate entity, Google is trying desparately hard to position Google+ as a thriving alternative to Facebook not because Larry Page and co. care about connecting people, but because they care about leveraging the interests of their users to optimize targeted ad revenue.

Recently, a Google engineer named James Whittaker (who worked on Google+) penned a widely circulated blogpost detailing the reasons behind his departure from Google.

Whittaker writes in part :

The Google I was passionate about was a technology company that empowered its employees to innovate. The Google I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus.

And that mandate was, and remains, "social" at any cost. And it was communicated to the Google faithful by Google CEO Larry Page himself.

Google CEO Larry Page

In April 2011, Page sent out a company wide email explaining that employee bonuses would be tied to social engagement. Specifically, 25% of an employee's bonus would be a function of the success of Google's social initiatives. Even employees with job duties that fell outside of the social realm were expected to test out Google's social products, evangelize them to friends and family, and of course, provide feedback.

All the while, Google's ultimate motivation was clear as day - more advertising dollars.

And when you're focused on the money, it's hard to stay as focused on the product.

That said, Whittaker explains how he saw Google morph from a company that generated ad revenue as a means to innovate into a company singularly focused on increasing ad revenue. Google's original mission, to organize the world's information, had seemingly changed overnight. 

Here, Whitiker describes the degree to which Google began focusing, with a laser like intensity, on all things social.

Social became state-owned, a corporate mandate called Google+. It was an ominous name invoking the feeling that Google alone wasn't enough. Search had to be social. Android had to be social. You Tube, once joyous in their independence, had to be … well, you get the point. Even worse was that innovation had to be social. Ideas that failed to put Google+ at the center of the universe were a distraction.

Officially, Google declared that "sharing is broken on the web" and nothing but the full force of our collective minds around Google+ could fix it. You have to admire a company willing to sacrifice sacred cows and rally its talent behind a threat to its business. Had Google been right, the effort would have been heroic and clearly many of us wanted to be part of that outcome. I bought into it. I worked on Google+ as a development director and shipped a bunch of code. But the world never changed; sharing never changed. It’s arguable that we made Facebook better, but all I had to show for it was higher review scores.

As it turned out, sharing was not broken. Sharing was working fine and dandy, Google just wasn’t part of it. People were sharing all around us and seemed quite happy. A user exodus from Facebook never materialized. I couldn’t even get my own teenage daughter to look at Google+ twice, "social isn’t a product," she told me after I gave her a demo, "social is people and the people are on Facebook." 

Driving the point home, Whitiker adds:

The old Google made a fortune on ads because they had good content. It was like TV used to be: make the best show and you get the most ad revenue from commercials. The new Google seems more focused on the commercials themselves.

So does Google care about social? Sure, but for all the wrong reasons.

While some may acknowledge and dismiss that point as irrelevant, the annals of tech history are filled with examples of companies who fail while pursuing objectives outside of their core competency. Is it any wonder that Apple's iAd initiative has failed to gain any traction? Because Apple, like Google and social, is only in the ad business for the money.

How people use FB vs Google

Looking past Google's motivations for Google+, there's a fundamental difference in the type of people that use Google+ and Facebook and how they use it.

Over the past few  years, Facebook has undergone a remarkable transformation. It's grown from a niche social network available exclusively to Ivy League students into a social network that transcends demographic differences.

Here's a question: What does a 36 year farmer in Kansas have in common with a 15 year old in India?

They're both on Facebook.

As for Google+, it's somewhat popular amongst photo enthusiasts, but a mainstream service it is definitely not. Most of its users are men and the site skews towards the technically inclined. That's all well and good for a niche site, but not if you wanna be as prevalent as Facebook.

Today, Facebook is a medium where people share interesting links, photos, and commonly announce important life events like engagements, a new job, and even the birth of a child.

And how do people use Google+?

Well, here's how Google envisions people using Google+ in what I imagine is their ideal use-case scenario.

Mr. Gundotra said Google Plus-enriched ads differentiated Google from social competitors, as the company can now deliver a “socially enhanced ad at the time of intent” rather than an ad placed randomly in a social stream.

For example, when someone searches for a microwave, Google can deliver an ad for a microwave that has been suggested by people in a user’s Google Plus Circles."

Yes, because people love logging onto their social network and suggesting microwaves. This certainly differentiates Google+ from social competitors, but not in a good way.

Facebook Lock-In

Another point worth mentioning is that the social cost of leaving Facebook is far greater than it's ever been for any other social network that's ever existed. Today, Facebook users have multitudes of tagged photos and other media content that keep them anchored to the site. More importantly, they have their friends.

As a personal example, my Facebook profile includes multitudes of tagged photos that stretch back all the way to 2005. And as opposed to Friendster and MySpace, leaving Facebook would mean leaving behind my entire social network, one that includes family members, work colleagues, college buddies, and everything else in between. Building up a similar network on Google+ is, at the moment, impossible.

And even assuming Google+ can build up an impressive user base, it doesn't matter much because most people aren't actively using Google+ anyways.

The lock-in effect is strong and very real.

But more than that, it's unprecedented.

The world is on Facebook, and Zuckerberg's creation is wildly more popular and engaging than MySpace and Friendster ever were. In its IPO filing, Facebook boasted that the site has 845 million monthly active users and 483 million daily active users.

Further highlighting the critical mass advantage Facebook holds over Google, Google has implemented a Twitter-style "trending" feature right into the Google+ stream. It's called "hot on Google+" and is seemingly an attempt to combine the social flavor of Facebook with the seasoning of Twitter. But combining these features effectively illustrates the lackluster "community" on Google+. On Facebook, in contrast, one needs to look no further than their own organic newsfeed to see what memes or world events happen to be trending.

Google's Google+ statistics are completely misleading

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