The Abysmal Google+ Numbers: Users Spending 3 Minutes per Month on the Site

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For many months now, the specter of Google+'s eventual failure has grown as a real possibility. It certainly *seemed* that the site was not catching on, but any real data to confirm that intuition was hard to come by. Certainly, when Google's own numbers turned out to be a flimsy charade, that seemed to be an ominous indication. An Instagram photo of "social media explained through donuts" went viral earlier this month, providing a few chuckles by confirming what everyone seemed to suspect: Google+ is an abandoned shell, a place once flooded by the curious and the speculators, only to have been abandoned by everybody but a few Google employees still trying to drum up interest.

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Perception leads, data confirmation follows: A Wall Street Journal report out this morning contains numbers from the research firm comScore that show what has long been suspected:

Visitors using personal computers spent an average of about three minutes a month on Google+ between last September and January, versus six to seven hours on Facebook each month over the same period.

Why has Google+ failed to catch on? There was so much excitement upon its release, but it has not stuck. Here are a two mistakes Google has made, and a theory on what to do now:

Google released a half-finished product.

Perhaps the first sign that Google hadn't thought things all the way through was a seemingly minor dust-up immediately after Google+'s launch: Google asked businesses and organizations not to create Google+ pages after many tried to do so, asking them to wait until official business pages were ready. Why not have these pages ready at launch? Why be so controlling over how people use your new network? By asking companies to shut down their pages, Google killed off an early source of content that could have brought people to the site. Why? This sort of fumbling is no big deal on its own, but it's surprising that on a product of this degree of importance, Google had failed to foresee such an obvious and inevitable chain of events. Google+ pages finally launched at the end of last year, but even then they were flawed, not allowing for basic functionality such as multiple administrators.

Google+ pages was not the only indication that the site was half-baked upon release. It took months before Google+ added a function that would allow users to "adjust the volume" on their different circles -- meaning that for months when I logged in, my stream was flooded with posts from acquaintances and professional contacts, and the friends and family I wanted to see were buried. This made the whole site experience unpleasant. Google+ was great for sharing -- I could share with very specific people -- but it was a terrible place for consuming information. It was as though Google only thought through half of the social networking experience.

Google shot itself in the foot by doing more "evil" -- aka questionable privacy practices -- squandering its biggest comparative advantage that it had over Facebook, its main competitor.

Unquestionably, the best thing Google+ had going for it was that it could be a place for people who had become distrustful of Facebook after years of that network's repeated privacy missteps. But as Nick Bilton chronicled in The New York Times, Google has recently found itself at the center of its own string of privacy controversies. He writes:

In 2000, when Google could count its employees by the dozen, it adopted its now famous mantra: Don't be evil.

Google considered it such a cornerstone of its operating philosophy that it was included in the S-1 filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2004 when it went public.

Now, 12 years later, Google has more than 30,000 employees with annual revenue of $38 billion and growing, and although it still sees itself as a company doing good, its latest actions raise the question: Is Google too big not to be evil?

This month alone Google has been caught up in more privacy debates than I've eaten hot meals. There was the mobile apps problem -- which also snagged Apple -- in which data from mobile phones was being sucked into the hands of just about any developer. Then it was discovered that Google was circumventing privacy settings on Web browsers to track the behavior of consumers.

Bilton goes on to detail several of the other flare-ups, including Google's new Search Plus Your World which will integrate search and Google+. Bilton attributes Google's new privacy tune to its size, but its also the result of trying to make social more at the core of what it does, all, presumably, to feed its lucrative ad sales. Doing so seems to require gaining and keeping more of your information, meaning that Google+'s core advantage over Facebook -- user control -- is in the crosshairs of Google's business model. If that's the case, Google+ is doomed.

Stop: Save what you can. Abandon the rest.

It's a shame Google+ is a social-networking site because, underneath the social layer that no one seems to be using, there are some great tools. Hangouts (Google+'s video conferencing tool) may not be something you want to visit every day, but their utility is obvious (if only for virtually streaming grandparents in to a baby-naming ceremony, as some friends recently did). Google+'s photo tools are fantastic -- easy sharing, great appearance, and simple uploading from Android phones. Similarly, Google Reader's great sharing functions were wonderful as part of Google Reader, and fail miserably on the Google+ site, away from the content you're reading. 

Unfortunately, Google seems intent on doing more of the same: Its photo-editing site Picnik will disappear in April, destined to live under the Google+ umbrella.

As it is, these tools get lost in the sea that is Google+. They would be so much more appealing if they were set free from the site. Google should make more of these tools, give them the homes they deserve, and forget its empty shell of a social network.



Image: douglaswray/Instagram.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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