Ever since it was first launched, Google+ has lagged in popularity, especially in comparison to its biggest rival, Facebook. As of 2014, Facebook had 1.28 billion users, but according to USA Today, the number of active monthly Google+ users was just 300 million. Despite losing the numbers game consistently, Google has shown favoritism for its product, doing everything possible to encourage more users to sign up and call more attention to the platform.
But a handful of recent tactical moves by Google are withdrawing from this aggressive strategy, possibly indicating that the decision makers at Google are no longer banking on Google+ being a success. Much of Google+’s current user base uses the product solely to get the ranking benefits, so if Google is no longer favoring the platform, their incentive will disappear and enrollment could drop even further.
Essentially, if Google pulls away its support, the entire foundation of Google+ could crumble, and the platform could fall into MySpace territory—in a pit of forgotten irrelevance. That’s the extreme perspective, but it’s realistic to think that, given the steps Google has taken, it’s losing enthusiasm for its social media platform and is ready to move on to other endeavors.
Let’s take a look at some of the factors responsible for this apparent shift.
Google Authorship was first rolled out with the platform in 2011, catering to writers by displaying the author’s headshot, name, and various social information in SERPs next to the article information. Google used this as a tool to entice new writers to the platform and simultaneously give more visibility to their social network. However, in June 2014, John Mueller first announced that the profile photo and the display of various circle count information were going to be eliminated from listings. Mueller insisted that the change was to make the results pages seem less cluttered, but it also seemed to reduce the power of Google Authorship.
Then, in August of 2014, Google removed a feature known as “Author Stats,” which previously allowed Google Authors to measure their impact by tracking impressions and click rates for their articles. While Google+ articles now once again feature profile images, it’s clear that Google is reeling back some of the Authorship benefits that once made the platform so appealing to bloggers and writers. This could be a step in a new direction for Google+, or it could be one of several signs that Google+ is no longer a priority for the tech giant.
Vic Gundotra had been working for Google for five years when Google+ officially launched in 2011. As the head of the Google+ division, Gundotra was seen as a figurehead of the social media platform. In April of 2014, however, Gundotra resigned from his position at Google. Gundotra elaborated that his departure was for personal reasons unrelated to the state of Google+, but it can still be seen as a major change for the platform. Obviously, the departure of one person cannot spell the doom of such a large system, but as one of several factors, it is a significant event.
Google Hangouts—an interactive video conference platform—were once tied directly with Google+, requiring all participants to have a Google+ account in order to host or join a meeting. However, in summer of 2014, Google took a number of steps to enhance the Google Hangout experience, one of which was removing the requirement of having a Google+ profile. Now, Google Hangouts can be accessed by anyone with a Google Apps account, even if they do not have a Google+ profile. Google claims this change is simply to make the platform more professional (since personal profiles will no longer need to be seen), but it’s also one less reason to get a Google+ profile.
At the end of August 2014, Google secretly rolled out a new feature in YouTube—the ability to import all your Google+ uploaded videos to your YouTube account. At first glance, it seems like just a nifty feature that allows you to connect your shared videos to your YouTube profile. However, it could be the first of many steps that Google is rolling out to give users a chance to export or re-host their shared Google+ content.
There is an increasing trend among web developers who have already created a button on their site with an option to “Sign in with Google+.” The integration is a nice feature for users of the Google+ platform, so developers are reluctant to remove it. However, Google appears to be rolling out a new button with an option to “Sign in with Google” to select web developers as a replacement. This may not seem like a small change—just removing the “+”—but it could be a major sign that Google is preparing to take more efforts to step away from the traditional Google+ brand.
For several years, building out a Google+ profile was a requirement if you wanted any type of Google account. If you wanted a new Gmail address, or if you wanted to sign into YouTube, you had to create a Google account from scratch, and you’d automatically be enrolled in Google+, with no option to remove yourself unless you delete the account entirely. However, as of September 2014, Google+ enrollment is no longer a requirement for new signups. If you create a Google account from scratch, eventually you will be prompted to either “Create your [Google+] profile” or turn down the offer with a “No thanks.” Again, this is a relatively minor change, but the fact that Google is no longer pressing Google+ on new signups could be an indication of their declining enthusiasm for the product.
Clearly, Google has heard all the speculation that they’re doing away with the Google+ platform. But for now, they’re as insistent as ever that Google+ is a quality product they’ll continue to support. According to a report by TechCrunch, at least one Google representative denied the decline of Google+ by acknowledging Vic Gundotra’s resignation: “Today’s news has no impact on our Google+ strategy—we have an incredibly talented team that will continue to build great user experiences across Google+, Hangouts, and Photos.” There have been some significant staffing changes, but that doesn’t mean that Google+ is going away; according to internal sources, it’s just an indication of shifting priorities or new team assignments. To date, Google has given no explicit indication that it’s doing away with the platform.
There’s no clear answer yet. Google+ could be phased out over the next year, or it could stick around for decades to come. But it is clear that Google is reevaluating their priorities, and is attempting to isolate the “Google+” brand from some of its other products. Rather than forcing Google+ down its users’ throats, it’s taking a more relaxed approach, segmenting its features and keeping Google+ as what it is—a social network for friends, colleagues, and family members. Whether these changes lead the platform to a new height in popularity, or result in its final demise remains to be seen.