The Google+ shut down is officially occurring in response to a disclosed security flaw, exposing the data of 500,000 accounts including things such as name, occupation and age.
Google+ is shutting down over a span of 10 months with access closed permanently by August 2019.
In previous years Google+ was regarded by many users as a dead platform with no relevance in the social media industry, an apt statement as public posts garnered seemingly no engagement, falling prey to a digital vacuum to be unread and forgotten.
After its initial flare from 2011-2013, Google Plus began to die down among users where it evolved into a community for professionals and serious hobbyists, somewhat akin to LinkedIn’s user base.
It’s no surprise that news of the Google+ shutdown was met with indifference by social media users, viewed as one of Google’s massive flops that attempted to challenge Facebook through the sharing of unique and relevant content among users.
Out of 2.2 billion Google users, Google+ boasts 111 million accounts; out of that number, only 6.7 million have posted more than 50 times and 3.5 million have 50+ posts in the past 30 days.
Google decided to open the social media platform to a select number of users through an invitation-only basis in June 2011, spurring huge demand for access to the platform. Existing users were granted 150 invitations to give away until September 2011, at which point the social platform would become open to the public.
The availability of limited invitations and exclusivity created a positive media buzz that greatly expanded the number of Google Plus accounts registered; by October 2011 more than 40 million users registered on Google+ with that number surging to 90 million by the end of the year with 600,000 users registering daily.
The way in which Google+ is used deviates from traditional social media norms, where friend requests are sent and accepted to view one another’s newsfeeds, in favor of users organizing their connections in private circles of “family” or “acquaintances.”
These circles proved to be useful in allowing users within those circles to effortlessly follow one another’s updates and manage the information you see in your feeds.
Beyond viewing content, Google Plus offered the ability to create and participate in Hangouts, a video chat option that allows up to ten users to interact on their computers or via mobile if the device is equipped with a front-facing camera. Hangouts offer integration with Google Drive and YouTube, where participants can edit documents or watch videos together, which is a unique concept that adds a deeper level of connection compared to other social media platforms, alongside airing the Hangout for public consumption like live videos or streaming.
Hangouts wasn’t the only Google product to become integrated with the platform as the company incorporated Gmail, Google+ Events, Google Calendar and even Google Plus Local.
The privacy settings on the platform are very user-friendly, allowing users to know exactly who their content was being shared with, although Google received flack for requiring users to use their real names and flagged accounts deemed suspicious.
Beyond the close-knit circles that are formed on the platform, Google+ makes use of communities that are like Facebook or LinkedIn Groups that allow like-minded users to share content in sub-categories.
With such an impressive suite of features dedicated to creating personal relationships with acquaintances and friends, Google Plus was released at the wrong time.
Spearheaded by the project’s head Vic Gundotra, Google+ was integrated into many Google products; after his exit in 2014 Google spent as many engineering hours removing Google+ from all of its products when compared to the amount of time spent incorporating it in the first place.
Google+ slowly transitioned from a social media platform to a discovery tool for quality content, which appealed to a niche audience compared to a vast majority of casual social media users.
By 2011 there were several mature social media platforms on the market, notably Facebook and Twitter, where users had spent years building up their accounts and fostering relationships with other users. Facebook already had the advantage of fostering and maintaining personal relationships while Twitter served as a 24/7 instantaneous news hub.
By 2012 social media users were spending the equivalent to 130,000 years on Facebook in contrast to 126 years on Google+, or one thousand minutes on Facebook compared to 1 minute on Google+.
Google also prevented third-party integration into its API, stagnating the platform from innovating and creating new features that would entice users to spend more time on the platform. The support for Google+ began to falter and remaining activity deviated to spam posts in both circles and communities to self-promote content.
In 2015 Google+ was focused on communities and collections being at the center of its user experience alongside Google My Business being easier to use.
Communities are groups created around specific interests or organization by individuals or businesses, like Facebook and LinkedIn Groups, that offer a great way to engage in a public or private setting. This feeds off Google’s attempt at creating more passionate and personal interactions among users, but its hard to get users to engage when they spend 3.3 minutes per month on the platform.
From personal experience I’ve stumbled upon seven communities that are moderated and active in my niche out of the 50 communities I requested to join in 2018. Any connection requests I receive are spam that post the same content dozens of times a day, negating any reason for me to continue using the platform.
Google+ Collections are akin to Pinterest boards, allowing you to create content collections centered on specific topics and interests that are visible to your followers based on what they want to see from you. Users can follow specific collections and +1, comment or re-share any of the posts that you add to your collection.
The problem with these two additions to Google+ is that other social media platforms already use these features. There’s no uniqueness to the experience and Google+ is simply following in the footsteps of its predecessors with a less enthusiastic consumer base.
Just as Instagram is cannibalizing Snapchat with its more robust story-feature, Google+ has no innovation and failed to bring anything new to the table after its initial launch in 2011. Social media users also prefer a sense of anonymity, which Google+ doesn’t allow as you’re forced to use your actual name when creating an account.
The final nail in the coffin for Google Plus was hammered by Google when it discovered a security issue through an internal review called Project Strobe through a bug in one of the site’s APIs that granted access to information on a user’s private profile.
Project Strobe is a root-and-branch review of third-party developer access to Google account and Android device data that looks at the operation of Google’s privacy controls, platforms where users were not engaging due to concerns of privacy controls, areas where developers were granted broad access and other areas of opportunity for tightening privacy control.
Ben Smith, Google’s VP of Engineering, wrote on the company's blog that there was no evidence the bug was abused or that developers using the API were aware that it existed.
“This review crystallized what we’ve known for a while: that while our engineering teams have put a lot of effort and dedication into building Google+ over the years, it has not achieved broad consumer or developer adoption, and has seen limited user interaction with apps,” Smith wrote. “The consumer version of Google+ currently has low usage and engagement: 90 percent of Google+ user sessions are less than five seconds.”
As Facebook has succumbed to some of the most notable security breaches in recent history, I would argue that the security breach was the final straw in the face of a product that produced diminishing returns in the grand scheme of Google's comprehensive product suite.
Despite the perception that Google+ isn’t relevant, it serves an integral role in website SEO and referral traffic, ranking just behind Facebook as the most important platform that Google crawls in ranking sites for relevance and SEO-friendliness.
Google’s algorithm factors in many variables unknown to the general public, but its been speculated that part of determining the quality of content on a web page is derived from the number of Google+ referrals it receives.
The way Google+ works is that the more active a business is in the Google+ community, the more +1’s (the Google+ equivalent to likes or favorites) it receives, which signals to the Google algorithm that the website is reliable and will rank better in the Google search engine results.
While the niche may be small, Google+ fostered an active community of users, provided that you look in the right places. Just as Facebook is prioritizing Facebook Groups in its user’s newsfeeds, anyone who is using Google+ needs to post and engage in Communities if they want to see any kind of engagement or active users.
Initially I posted without joining any communities on Google+, only to experience increasing frustration as posts remained untouched and comments on other people’s posts were largely ignored. Even with multiple tweaks in messaging and content my posts received no engagement and I was ready to give up on the platform.
Based on Facebook’s algorithm change and the emphasis it started placing on Facebook Groups, I decided to see if Google+ offered something similar and was surprised to find a sea of groups that I could join.
Unlike Facebook, Google+ doesn’t necessarily have Pages, just variations of account types, but there are no stipulations as to who can post in a group, whereas with Facebook only personal accounts can participate in a group while Pages are barred from access.
The trick was to find Communities that are active and don’t spam content in self-promotion or attempts at artificially boosting SEO. It took some time to find a few Communities worth joining, but the moment that I found a few that met my criteria I found that I started receiving an increase in engagement as well as referral traffic directly from Google+.
To put that into perspective, I didn’t have any referral traffic from Google+ for three months until I started posting in relevant Communities; in early 2017 Google+ ranked as one of my highest referrers behind Facebook and LinkedIn.
My experience may be anecdotal at best, but in my eyes it shows the importance of engaging in communities as a way to grow your personal brand, or building a community of like-minded users if you’re expanding a business that offers products or educational materials.
The purpose of social media is to inform, educate or entertain, not constantly sell yourself to users, shove advertisements and marketing efforts down their throats and self-promote without adding anything of value to the user.
Social media is starting to move further in this direction as Facebook takes the lead in bringing back meaningful engagement with its users instead of displaying business posts and promotions on equal footing in newsfeeds. Google+ is also in this boat, although it doesn’t serve as a suitable platform for advertisers and promoters.
It’s interesting that Google+ purported itself to be on equal footing as a direct competitor to Facebook, but instead of serving as a standalone platform it now stands as support for other Google services such as Photos or Hangout.
Google has a history of shutting down products and services that aren’t performing as anticipated and it’s unfortunate that Google+ suffered a similar fate based on the exceedingly low amount of active users it accrued in the past seven years.
Smith wrote on Google’s blog that the reason why Google+ is shutting down is they plan on sunsetting the consumer version of Google+ due to the challenges of maintaining a successful Google+ that meets consumer expectations.
Having said that, Smith noted that many enterprise customers found great value in using Google+ within their companies and believe its better suited as an enterprise product rather than a commercial product for public use.
“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,” Smith wrote. “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. We will share more information in the coming days.”