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Opinion: Google+ – has Google done it again?

A long time ago, in a company blog far, far away (don’t look for it, it isn’t there anymore*), I wrote about how Google had dropped the ball with Wave & Buzz. Rushing to judgement on Google+ is not smart, but I’m seeing a lot of the same signs and I think Google have a very small window of opportunity in which to make things right before their adoption rates start to atrophy.

Full disclosure: I love Google. They’ve given me free email that works better than anything else I’ve had, they solved the problem of porting contacts to a new mobile phone with Contacts (from an hour plus hassle to mere seconds in one fell swoop), the Calendar, Contacts and email all play nicely together and are bloody easy to set up on Blackberrys and other phones. They’ve given us Android and Chrome. And they have this search engine thingwhich is quite handy.Their maps have saved me navigational humiliation on many an occasion. I’ve never had to pay a penny for any of those things, too – so what’s not to like?

The problem with Wave and Buzz wasn’t the products themselves, necessarily. It was how we were introduced to them. Other Google products were developed by damned fine engineers, then released into a beta or Labs version, then tested & gradually released. I remember when Gmail invites were genuinely hard to come by, – and it was for more than just a few days, too. This process allowed engineering types to gradually absorb real user feedback, tweak, redevelop and re-release – it was a productive loop. Similarly, products and add-ons that got released to indifference would eventually slip quietly off the Labs list and disappear.That period also gave time for users to explore, experiment and develop a genuine love for the product.

But Wave & Buzz both did something that Google had never really done before (with the possible exception of Chrome at the time): they appeared in a traditional, PR-heavy blaze of publicity – they were announced as the finished, real deal. And, of course, they weren’t. Had Google released Wave to interested parties in a beta, they would have found all the little things that annoyed people or were just plain non-user-friendly. Perhaps by the time it reached a public release it would have been easier to use and adoption would have been steadier. Buzz was just a Twitter “me-too,” with seemingly only its ability to integrate into Gmail as anything like a USP.

"I would show you my manboobs if I thought you'd buy into the product"

People use phrases like “organic growth” far too much without really understanding what it means. Gmail was awesome in the light of the Hotmails and Yahoo!s that preceded it. Suddenly here was a nicely searchable, easy to use mail interface with seemingly unlimited storage space – it was so good that people became evangelists for no other reason than “this is good – you would love it.” By dropping a top-heavy marketing campaign on an unsuspecting public, expectations are raised, often unrealistically; there’s just no room for users to become enthusiastic of their own accord – all the enthusiasm has been generated for them. So there’s less incentive to talk about the product and far more interest in picking it apart. Instead of being able to help fix the holes, which happens with lab products, it’s too late – it’s a release version, it’s not that great, we all move on to something else.

Google+, then, has some great things going for it – I think “circles” is a decent answer to the definition of social media “friendships,” for example – but it also has a lot of holes. Private messaging is clunky, the mobile app side of things is shockingly bad (iPhone but not iPad or Touch? Really?) but most important of all is the lack of an open API – which would have helped solve all of those problems much quicker than Google can themselves.

What they should have done was test in private / semi-private for longer. They could have added / withdrawn functionality as required, let developers play with the API and start building apps to connect the dots. User feedback would have improved the usability for ordinary, non-techy types and by the time it reached a release version it would have been better. Those invites should then have been let out much more slowly to ensure that users were seeing the benefits and continue the tweaking at a reasonable pace.

But the main thing Google have forgotten is that there was no aching need for a new social network in the public-at-large. Much is made of Facebook’s privacy and other issues, but those are still issues that interest a relatively small slice of its user base. Diaspora’s privacy-hugging release has not dented Facebook one iota – there simply aren’t 100s of millions of people waiting for a replacement, they’re happy where they are. Likewise Twitter. Like Buzz, we now have a product with some natty features but we aren’t sure why we should trade up. Like Wave, we have other things that do that job for us – do I really need to learn how to use something new..?

We still love this stuff, right?

And key to all of it is a lack of mobile functionality. This wouldn’t matter so much if there was an open API and developers could start getting it in shape. The truth is, many developers will be better at mobile interfaces than Google. Despite all the time they’ve had – and their involvement in Android – Google is still hit and miss on mobile. In fact one respected angel investor has decried Google as almost a spent force, and not least because of a failure to get mobile working for them

It surprises me that people think something like a social network can be marketed like anything else – it’s a particular product that demands social acceptance and, yes, organic growth. That’s how you know it’s good, because it’s inherently “social.” Google+ is showing fast growth because they’re tapping into an existing Google customer base, within which is a voluminous tech-savvy bunch who have enough doubts about Facebook to want to try something new. I think their first 20 million users is easy. To reach 100 million they’re going to have to overcome a lot of the issues mentioned above as well as the fact that Twitter’s existing base seem happy enough. It’s not the Facebook-doubting Google-lovers they have to convince; it’s all those people’s friends that are on Facebook, because if they don’t leave or migrate, then those same tech-savvy types will just go back to where all their friends are.

Google had a way of working that set them apart from the competition. Whilst Microsoft was dumping effectively unfinished products into the market (poor iterations of Internet Explorer, Windows Vista, early Windows mobiles, vast swathes of clunky, memory-sapping  software), and relying on their brand and clout to sell them in, Google were the happy engineers, testing and tweaking and as close to their marketplace as they needed to be to succeed. Wave & Buzz looked like Microsoft launches, not Google; Google+ looks halfway between the two. If it works, it will be because the engineering side of their character shines through and they address quickly the issues that will hamper growth.

Google stands at a crossroads. Whilst their success as a multinational brand is probably unlikely to change in the light of advertising-based performance, their success as innovators may be in the balance. I hope they take the right path.

*Because mixing film references is fun, OK?

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