Why Google+ will fail

An expansion of a conversation begun with Dave and Patrick one night over scotch and cigars…


In my first draft of this post, I started off with, “Well, not ‘fail’, exactly, it’s not like they’re fundamentally flawed, throwing Blink tags all over the place or something awful like that, but they’re certainly not going to hit the targets they’ve gotta be aiming for…”

And after reading that bit through again, I realized that, ultimately, yes, they were going to fail.  The stakes are too high, the goals too large…what would be considered phenomenal success for anyone else is failure for them.  They’re not playing for a respectable second place…though I’m sure they’ll find some way to make that work for them, when it becomes evident that’s where they’re going to end up.

But enough of the navel-gazing, down to business:

Google+ is going to fail, and fail big-time.  There’s only one measure of success for them:  Facebook, and every one of their 750 million active users.  Anything less than that–or even just chopping that number way down, by more than half, and passing them by a clear and evident margin–isn’t good enough.

And the sad part is that it won’t have much–if anything–to do with what they’re doing or how they’re doing it…truthfully, although it’s still very early, from what I can see, they’ve learned almost every lesson you could have hoped they would have learned from Facebook, and have already demonstrated a willingness to fix those things they still don’t have quite right yet.

If it was simply a matter of putting a better product on the market and trusting that everyone–or at least the vast majority of people–would take a look at the new offering, compare it to what they’ve currently got, and then choose what’s clearly better, then there’d be no problem.  But anyone who’s ever looked even briefly into real-world marketing economics and sociology knows that it’s never that simple.  Or else why do we still have both Coke and Pepsi on the shelves?

For my one grand, sweeping generalization per post (which I really can’t be bothered to explicate fully; please just assume that I know that things are much more subtle than this when examined in detail, and my usage of the more general ideas doesn’t ignore nor invalidate the complexities of overlapping, evolving micro-systems), there are three kinds of people using the Internet with any degree of regularity (i.e. the 750 million active users of Facebook):

  • Hard-core geekerati
  • Technically savvy people
  • Grandma Betty

The hard-core geekerati write for Boing Boing, invest 10x more into their Reddit time than they do the local neighborhood watch, cite donations to Wikileaks as a charitable deduction on their tax returns, and not only knew all about Google+ before the information was public, they already had an invite before the announcement came, either through inside contacts or because they’d figured out how to hack the invite interface.

These folk know in intimate detail the differences between FB and G+; in fact, Google designed G+ with all of their many tumblr posts and tweets complaining about FB in mind.  Given a choice between the two…well, there really isn’t a choice for them.  G+ wins in a landslide, and either they’ve already fully migrated over to it from FB, their megalomania assuring them that anyone who doesn’t follow them over probably doesn’t get it anyway, or they’re primarily on G+, but still hanging around FB until its momentum dies out and everyone they care about has similarly ported over, so they can leave it behind for good.

I’m not even going to pretend that I know the demographics here, nor can I be bothered to work up any reasonably-researched estimates, so I’m going to pull wild guesses out of my ass:  assume there aren’t too many of these folks, it requires a certain mobility to their lifestyle, a willingness to adapt to the new and strange, and the financial means to pursue it…worldwide, we’re talking, what, 5 million people, tops?

That leaves 745 million people still actively on FB.

The second group, the people with various degrees of technical savvy…these people know enough to have already tried turning their computer off and back on again before calling technical support, but not enough to never have to call support at all.  They’re probably already on G+, but still consider FB their primary Internet “home”…G+ is a cool place to check out, like that new show on AMC…it’s interesting, but gets immediately put on hold if there’s a new episode of [fill in R-rated HBO hour-long drama here] on the DVR.

But they see the promise.  They have some of the same concerns about FB that the geekerati have, even if they’re not nearly as passionate about it.  Ultimately, they’ll end up preferring to move wholesale over to G+, but it’s not something that’ll be a driving factor in their online lives.

Again, not going to pretend I can estimate numbers here, but since these folks need to have enough leisure time to explore new ideas, and the financial means to acquire the tools often enough to gain enough mastery to be willing to explore in the first place…what, between 50 and 100 million people, worldwide?  That’s probably really, really high.  Still, for the point of this exercise, we can be conservative in the “trying to invalidate the point I’m trying to make” direction, and go with 100 million, and still…

That leaves 105 million people on G+, and 645 still actively on FB.

Brief aside:  as of this writing, there are only 10-15 million active G+ accounts total.  That’s primarily because it’s still in Beta, still invite-only.  I’m somewhat speculating down the road, once the invites become unnecessary and anyone who wants to can sign up.  This is an “after the system stabilizes” kind of thought experiment.

And now we come to the third group, Grandma Betty.  Which is where G+ will fail.

A bit more generalized pontificating…there are two major paths that the Internet has followed down through the ages.

The first is for those who pay attention to what’s going on, the savvy…basically the first two groups already mentioned.  For them, the Internet, and computers in general, have been in a constant state of evolution, from the first IBM PCs, to your first Intel x86’s, and Usenet, and downloading porn in a dorm room that looks like just a bunch of random ASCII characters until you manage to find and download an image decoding program, and Archie to search for stuff, and then Mosaic, Compuserve, Excite, Ask Jeeves (non-boolean, real-term searches!), and Geocities and Friendster and MySpace and Facebook and, now Google+.

The second–the one that Grandma Betty is aware of–is made of much broader strokes.  The Apple II.  AOL.  And now Facebook.  It’s not an evolution, it’s a series of fascinating new peaks that captures their interest, becoming a part of their lives in the same way indoor toilets, color television and automatic transmissions have…with no concern at all with what happens in all the valleys in between.

And this is the problem that G+ is facing.  Grandma Betty doesn’t care that G+ is a little better than FB.  For her, FB is not one markedly more popular option in a long line of evolving ways to interact with people online; for her, FB is The Facebook.  It’s The Internet.  It’s being Online.  All of that, wrapped up in a single identity.

The idea of switching over to something better…well, why?  Isn’t one color TV basically the same as another?

Or, to land on another, probably more relevant analogy, what I’m basically saying is that FB is DVDs, and G+ is laserdiscs.  Yeah, there are a number of savvy people who are going to see all the benefits the latter offers over the former, and will switch over, either in whole or in part…but the vast majority of people won’t be aware of a difference, and won’t care.  I mean, we’re how many years into the HD/Blu-ray “revolution”, and DVDs still outsell Blu-ray discs by a magnitude.

And laserdiscs are an interesting footnote.

There are 645 million Grandma Betty’s out there.  That’s the difference between winning and losing in this game, and I just don’t see any way that G+ stands a chance at stealing even a small fraction of them.  Grandma Betty just likes being Online, on The Facebook, and is still feeling pretty pleased with herself that she’s figured out how to post photos that her family and friends can see.  The entire debate and choice between The Facebook and Google+…or anything else that’s similar, better or not…flies over her head the way a debate over PER vs. Adjusted +/- stats in basketball fly over the head of someone who is only peripherally aware that Michael Jordan isn’t playing professionally anymore.

So that’s my bit; I like G+, I’m one of those people in the second group I mentioned, and I’ve got an account and post to it occasionally, have some Circles set up already.  But I wouldn’t bet against FB any time soon.


And no, I have no intent on posting as to where I’ve been for the last 6+ months…too busy dusting this place down…damn it falls all to pieces when I step away for a while.  I may get to that…later.

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  1. #1 by Stacy on July 19, 2011 - 10:23 AM

    Your geekerati description leaves me thinking of this:

  2. #2 by Stacy on July 19, 2011 - 10:24 AM

    bah, lack of preview option

  3. #3 by Angela N. Hunt on July 19, 2011 - 11:45 AM

    Yup. All of this in spades.

  4. #4 by MYMHM on July 19, 2011 - 12:44 PM

    Here’s why you might be missing the point, navel gazing aside. The one big advantage that G has over FB is it doesn’t particularly NEED grandma Betty to exploit all of the features and have a dedicated FB like experience for her to be using Plus at a very basic level. The name “Google +” is apt, because it really is ALL of Google’s services “plus” a framework to connect them.
    We’ll take my EXTREMELY not tech savvy Grandmother for example. She currently uses Gmail, Reader, Picasa, and Docs with no issues, and bemoans sharing pics on FB because it’s too complicated and she doesn’t know how to send a photo to groups of people like she can with email (instead of it being public). That’s just one example.
    Starting with the Picasa and Blogger re-brandings, ANY Google service one might use will (to some extent) be using plus. Which means, as soon as Plus goes public, you instantly hurdle over 150 million registered users based on Gmail alone. Add to that Picasa/Blogger/Youtube/Docs/Shopping/Calendar/ Reader/ and all of their other services, and this is still only in it’s first BETA revision.
    See to a degree grandma betty also needs to be led, which means she’ll use whatever service others are using. It only took sharing one picture of my dog to get my Mom, Brother, Sister, Aunt, and two Uncles using Plus.
    Also, I have to say your numbers for success seem to be missing the point as well. This isn’t an individual project like Facebook, where having members gives your brand power. That means a bucket of users, walled away. They already have that a number of times over. That’s a Myspace mentality. It’s why Wave failed, and Buzz floundered. That’s not how Google profits from their services. Google wont be happy until they have THE INTERNET. ALL OF IT. Until everything you touch (whether you have an account or not) relates SOME information back to Google HQ. This isn’t a project in the traditional sense. This is a complete restructuring of each and every INDIVIDUAL service they offer, the new status quo at Google.
    Google doesn’t really care if it’s an exciting new peak for Grandma Betty, They’re like the Joker from the 1st Tim Burton Batman: “Chances are She’s Bought It Already!”

    • #5 by emittime on July 19, 2011 - 1:38 PM

      I definitely see your point…Google already has its tendrils into huge swaths of the internet, whether the people using it are aware of the branding or not, and G+ is in some ways the OS-like shell they’re hoping to lay over the top of it…I’m personally excited about the +1 potential…once that hits critical mass, you’ll have–in one place–updates from your friends, all your RSS feeds, plus a ton of stuff you *didn’t* know you’d be interested in, but Google’s algorithms determined you’d like, based on everything else passing through your stream, both from you and all your friends and the people you’re following.

      And, god help me, I’m an arrogant bastard, but not so arrogant as to imagine that Larry and Sergei haven’t already thought through this very issue to degrees of complexity that makes this essay look like it was written by a completely different and lesser species of creature.

      I just don’t think there’s any action plan that even the most brilliant people can put into place that can actively shape a zeitgeist, which is really the engine that drove FB from “insanely cool and popular thing online” to “critical part of most of humanity’s lives”.

      I think you underestimate how tech savvy your Grandmother is…she uses Google Reader, and Picasa and Docs…despite what she may say about her own abilities (and/or her need to be told to try turning the computer off and then on again by tech support), she’s clearly and actively using tools online for specific purposes and has an opinion about how well they work.

      What transformed FB into the phenomenon it is was managing to capture all the people who are barely capable of understanding the broadest strokes about what “online” means. I’m thinking of the senator who infamously referred to the internet as “a series of tubes, that get clogged up”. Or the humorous horror stories of watching a relative open their browser, which defaults to yahoo, and typing “google.com” into yahoo’s search bar, and then clicking on the link in the search results for google, then entering the webpage they want to go to into google’s search bar (like cnn.com), then clicking the link in the search results, etc. Or this: http://i234.photobucket.com/albums/ee148/davedave24/too-many-toolbars.jpg Those people aren’t looking for a better solution because they know what they want to do and think the current way they can do it isn’t good enough…they think that this is just the way this internet/facebook/tubes thing works, and don’t pay it a single moment of deep thinking.

      Those are the people won’t migrate over to G+ because they barely have an understanding of what FB is, let alone that there’s anything sub-optimal about it or that there’s something potentially better to use instead. And those are the people that turn 75 million users into 750 million users.

      I have no doubt that G+ will turn into a thriving ecosystem that markedly changes the way we interact with the online world, both in the short term and in the longer discussion, and I and almost everyone I know will be right there as it happens…but I’m pretty sure FB will be keeping the vast majority of its active users right where they are while that technological evolution happens.

  5. #6 by MYMHM on July 19, 2011 - 5:13 PM

    I don’t dispute anything you just posted. I still think you’re missing the larger point.
    Facebook wants to make a sandbox you play in, Google wants the rest of the world. I don’t believe for a second that Google + proper “unseats” FB in its first year, or any other nonsense like that, but G has potentially found an extremely elegant end run AROUND the sandbox.
    With products like Android and Chrome, utilizing all of G’s individual services, it wont matter if the Google+ social site doesn’t have as many individual registered users of JUST Google+. Google+ isn’t really a MySpace/FB competitor, but a top down reorganization of services. The only way for it to “fail” is for Google to go out of business.

    So I guess I just don’t understand your criteria for “failure” and “success”, other than using the first word to create a controversial blog post title. It’s a little like saying the Prius is a failure because more people drive the Corolla, admittedly a poor analogy, but one where I’m sure Toyota would disagree (especially with all the mind-share and licensing they got out of Synergy).

    I don’t think Google cares if they’ve got more people in a sandbox because that doesn’t really help them sell more advertising around the web, so from a business perspective FB will have issues with even a small fraction of their
    user base leaving, as they can only sell ads WITHIN FB.
    FB also has a problem with content. Content is key, but FB is a walled garden, and people don’t create for FB they create to SHARE on FB, so where does that content come from? From outside FB. Who shares it initially? The reasonably tech savvy.

    I don’t think this has anything to do with creating a zeitgeist. This is as much an internal corporate restructuring as it is a new public service. I would imagine there’s more internal discussion between teams at G than ever before. This isn’t about creating one new individual bucket at G, but taking ALL the buckets from ALL the services (which have been mining ALL the information on the web) and dumping them ALL into one big pile. Sharing what they’ve learned from each individual success and failure. Think about it, it’s likely data FROM FB is mined by every Google service it interacts with. The reverse can not be said.

    This is perhaps the one big advantage G has over FB, its ability to leverage brands that people still don’t know are Google to the web at large to make cash on advertising. FB will always have to go out of network to do that, Microsoft for search, Skype to improve chat, etc.

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