Does Google see social media as the battlefield of the future? Their lackluster attempt with Google+ seems to suggest that the answer is ”no”. For Google, the battlefield of the (near) future is AI. Or, perhaps an even better way to put is: the battlefield is you.

Google+ is over. Google’s official explanation to us is that the shutdown was due to a security breach. Maybe it was. But, let’s take a deeper look.

Google also informed us that adoption and engagement numbers for the now-defunct social media platform were meager.

For example, the tech company reported that 90 percent of Google+ user sessions ended in seconds. So, uh, yeah. Low.

So, this is the way Google+ ends: not with a bang, but with a whimper. And, if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is in its “circle” to hear it, does that fall make a sound?

Taken at face value, the short answer is: yes, Google+ failed. And, no surprise there either. No one liked it. No one used it. No one will miss it.

Why did Google Plus fail? Google’s social media attempt couldn’t compete with Facebook. In the end, a security breach was the ideal excuse to put it out of its misery. After all, Google’s primary objective is to understand you and your preferences to improve its AI endeavors, anyway.

So, was Google+ even trying to compete with Facebook?

While Facebook was building a nation, Google+ seemed to encourage us to make our own personal gated community.

I’m skeptical about that. Instead, I believe the platform’s goal was something different. Something deeper.

It’s time for an autopsy.

Failure? Or Mission Accomplished?

Google+ failed launch
Google+ is gone, but was that Google’s plan all along? | Image By Gearstd | Shutterstock

On the eve of the Google+ launch, Mark Zuckerberg gathered his troops and prepared for war.

Seven years later, there is a definitely a clear winner. Facebook, mounting problems aside, is the undisputed juggernaut of social media. Any competitor is either destroyed or consumed.

In that light, Google didn’t care about making Google+ a social network. That wasn’t the platform’s main priority. What Google really wanted, I believe, was to understand what coffee you like, what gym you attend, or who your friends are.

Google+ was about knowing what its users liked outside of just searching.

By mining that information, Google could tap into another enormous dataset straight from the horse’s mouth. That data could help the company become more precise with its advertising on all the other Google properties.

Google shutting down Google+ on a security lapse sounds like an excuse for killing something that has served its purpose.

Vertical Integration, Circular Processes

Picture of the logo for Google Plus for business.

Google has invested heavily in AI since at least the early 2010s. With the emergence of RankBrain and rapid advances in Google Translate, Google saw significant advancements in 2015 and 2016.

Google+ follows a parallel timeline. There are several obvious ways that Google+ could serve as a crutch to the company’s AI.

If you had a Google account, you had a Google+ page by default. Curiously, Google+ was never much about advertising on the Google+ network, or related chat programs. I believe that Google+ was about knowing what its users liked outside of just searching.

Maybe Google used the information from Google+ for image recognition or learn what people talk about. Or the platform may have been used for user sentiment analysis and general interest gathering for their Google profiles.

But, has Google ever actually said anything about this ulterior motive?

Yes.

In an interview with the Huffington Post, Googles’ former VP of Social, Vic Gundotra, suggested Google+ was the next generation of Google. His words were that “the old Google was siloed; your identity and how you share with your family was different across each product.

He added, “in the new version of Google, we know your name, we understand your circles and we make every service better.”

Gundotra continued by explaining that “…we asked ourselves: ‘What if Google did more than understand pages but understood people?’ What if we could become an engine not just for information but really understood individuals? It would unlock all sorts of scenarios.”

I believe Google intended to mine users for their data to help improve its algorithms. It would seem, then, like Google has accomplished its goal.

The security lapse is clearly an excuse to shut it down. Strange that the fatal blow occurred back in March of 2018, meaning it took almost seven months to announce the breach and retire the platform. That tree took a while to fall.

Consumer Version out. Business Version Remains.

Google+, like many Google products, underwent a series of redesigns. This included shifting focus to photos and streams a mere three and a half years after launch.

Moreover, some of Google+’s early features took on a life of their own. For example, consider Google Hangouts, which, like Facebook Messenger, enjoys decent usage and engagement independent of the social media platform.

It’s worth noting that there is a distinction between the business version and the consumer version of Google+. For one, the consumer version will bleed out and die by August 2019. However, we will still have Google+ for business. This means that we can create business pages and put out a business feed.

But, we Lose a Powerful Google Rank Signal

Skier falling on podium
Sometimes being at the front of the pack doesn’t directly translate as “winning”. | Image via Stefano Rellandini | Reuters

Google+ engagement was a potent ranking signal.

A single share from a Google+ account counted for more rates than a Facebook share because Google knew exactly who shared what. How? You needed a google account, and Google knows when you’re active.

Your Google+ shares were a powerful ranking factor because Google knew they were legit.

On one hand, Google knows what your browsing history is. If you like something in Google+, Google had a good reason to trust you.

On the other hand, you might have purchased those two thousand Facebook likes from someone and, as it stands, Google has no way to check if those are real likes. Your Google+ shares were a powerful ranking factor because Google knew they were legit.

For that reason alone, I’ll miss Google+. It was one of my secret ranking signals. I knew how to improve ranking because Google disproportionately valued it.

What is happening to social signals as ranking factors without Google+?

The Circle of Trust Remains Unbroken

A core feature of Google+ was Circles.

Image via tenor.com

It was a way to build groups (or circles) of contacts for more optimal sharing. Held within this concept were the yin of trust and the yang of support. This idea of a safe space you create for yourself to share ideas (and memories, news, etc.).

Check out this video Google released during the launch. Take particular note of the tone:

I love the quiet, warm, and just a tad-bit apprehensive quality you hear in the voice. “Do I really have what it takes to take you on as a new friend?” It’s as if he’s scared to approach a stranger to start a conversation. Or, handling a hot dumpling with a mystery filling — must bite carefully.

While Facebook was building a nation, Google+ seemed to encourage us to make our own personal gated community.

Now, Facebook seems to be applying an “aw shucks; we were supposed to be a little neighborhood,” approach to their current apology tour:

And, just for fun, check out this video, too:

Facebook has renewed its focus on our family and friends circle and less on outside circles. This points to a social media landscape that continues to create bubble communities that echo your own thought patterns. To reinforce what you already believe.

Family as a circle. Friends as a circle. Politics as a circle. Thought as a comfort zone.

So, Maybe it did Fail. Where do we go From Here?

Google+ 1
Google+ might be gone, but the data it harvested is most certainly still there. | Image by Muhammad Cordiaz | Flickr

Okay, let’s say Google+ failed.

If we believe the platform’s goal was to be a dominant social network, then it’s clear it wasn’t successful.

But, if Google+ had succeeded, what would that have meant? What would that look like?

I think we would still be looking at a massive data mining operation. Google would know everything about what you like, what you talk about, what your politics are, your toothpaste.

If that’s the case, Google missed a YUGE opportunity (as it often does).

I think it’s worth asking, in this postmortem, whether Google sees social media as the battlefield of the future. Their lackluster attempt with Google+ seems to suggest that the answer is” no.” For Google, the battlefield of the (near) future is AI. Or, perhaps an even better way to put is: the battlefield is you.

What it is that you like? What are you looking forward to? Who do you want in your circle? What do you want to hear from them?

Google+ was as useful a tool as any to search for those answers. Either the tech hegemon found the data it needed or already had the right tools to grab it. With or without Google+, the company’s goal continues to be to give you what you don’t even know you want.

Whatever the reason, Google+ is gone. The circle remains.

Did you ever use Google+? Will you miss it?

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