How Google Can Beat Facebook Without Google Plus

Look, Google, we've got a plan to help you win on social. There's only one catch: You have to give up on the notion that animates Google Plus.


Out in the Mojave Desert, there's a place called California City that's fascinated me ever since Geoff Manaugh brought its story to the Internet's attention. The city is one of the largest in the state by land area, but its population sits at a mere 14,718. The facts together indicate the grandeur of the planned community's conception and its failure.

tl;dr version
  • Google Plus is an abandoned city in the desert.
  • I.e. "Google's social tool (G+) has no community and its communities (Books, Scholar) lack social tools."
  • Google can still win the social war.
  • But only if it A) abandons the operational idea of Google Plus and B) empowers the users of its existing products.

As pitched by the town's founder Nat Mendelson, California City would be the home of the American dream, a wonderland for sun and job seekers to go after Los Angeles' population burst across that city's eastern mountains. In 1957, land was purchased; roads were roughly paved; street signs were hammered into place. All Mendelson and his investors needed were the people ...

Who did not arrive as expected.

Those people did stop going to Los Angeles. But they didn't head to the enormous planned community taking shape in the Mojave. Instead, they headed to places like Phoenix. In 1955, the town had 350,000 people. By 1990, it had broken 2 million. California City languished, its grid still cut into the ground and viewable on Google Earth (see below). Instead of a megalopolis, California City became a set of half-built infrastructure. Growth went where people were already gathering naturally. They did not want to move out to the middle of nowhere, no matter how great the golf courses looked in the brochures.


Google/Alexis Madrigal

* * *

Last year, Google, which had dabbled in official social-networking applications, released Google Plus. The site has all the things you've come to expect in a social network. There is a rich profile builder, a place for your photos, a nice videochat feature, a conversation feed, and, of course, "Circles," which allow users to sort the people they know into different buckets. Word at the time was that Google's full weight was behind this social push. The journalists who knew the company's insiders best declared that Facebook was CEO Larry Page's obsession.

I was bullish about Google Plus, even if it did feel like a Facebook clone. Google had built out a ton of infrastructure and was pushing Plus out through its major products. This had to be big!

But by most accounts and third-party research, the service is growing its number of users but not their engagement. People are "on" Google Plus, but they are not really ON Google Plus. The infrastructure is there. The street signs are there. People own plots of land. But there's nobody actually visiting town. To make it obvious: Google Plus is the California City to Facebook's Los Angeles.

Google, of course, vehemently disputes that the social network is anemic. They say not to trust the methodology of the people who measure public posts. They tell you that more private sharing occurs than public sharing. They say that the service is growing by every metric that matters to Google.

For example, here's what a Google spokesperson told me about one third-party report:

"By only tracking engagement on public posts, this study is flawed and not an accurate representation of all the sharing and activity taking place on Google+. As we've said before, more sharing occurs privately to circles and individuals than publicly on Google+. The beauty of Google+ is that it allows you to share privately - you don't have to publicly share your thoughts, photos or videos with the world."

But it is simply impossible to ignore that few people actually *use* Google Plus in any way that we've come to define usage of a social network. ComScore says people spent about 3 minutes a month at the site. Google contends that doesn't include mobile traffic or the dropdown menu that appears when you click the red "notification" icon in Gmail and other Google services. But neither of those places seems likely to change the overall pattern here. Deep engagement is not lurking in that dropdown. Let's say actual G+ usage is 10x what the numbers say, so 30 minutes. Facebook's at 405. Pinterest's at 89. Tumblr is at 89, too.

Another small piece of evidence: I added up all the links from to The Atlantic. In total, we received 16,000 visitor referrals from the site. That ranks it in the low 30s for us and that sum is orders of magnitudes smaller than we get from some of Google Plus' competitors. BuzzFeed assembled some similar evidence on +1s from around the web along with a devastating excoriation of the site experience.

"Logging into Google+ feels like logging into a seminar, or stumbling into the wrong conference room at an airport Marriott," John Herrman wrote. "It looks like a cubicle farm and smells like a hospital."

Ouch. So what gives? How could Google have invested so much money and credibility in building a service that, by all accounts except Google's own, doesn't work?

* * *

One hypothesis, advanced by TechCrunch's Josh Constine, is that we in the media completely misread Google Plus. The service was not an attempt to compete with Facebook. It was not a declaration of social war. No, it was a classic Google approach to social: develop a method to extract and organize information, but this time about the humans. So, they gave us something that looked like Facebook with familiar text boxes to fill in. They tricked us into inputting ourselves into their database with the promise of a great service. On this theory, it doesn't matter to Google if we use G+ because we already gave them our names, locations, interests, and webs of social connections.

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