Defined as one of Google’s “greatest failures” by the Wall Street Journal, mocked by a large part of the American media, the Google+ social network will definitively close at the beginning of April for individuals, after the announcement of a second data leak involving more than 50 million users in December 2018. Launched in 2011 to compete with Facebook’s irresistible rise and ensure Google’s control over user data in addition to simple search, Google+ failure tells us a lot about how social networks work.
A social network not designed for mobile phones
Google+’s mistake: not having developed a platform designed for mobile. This logic was the opposite of that of WeChat, whose initial objective was to “create a purely mobile instant messaging system,” according to Pony Ma, CEO of Tencent. From mobile-first to mobile-only. An excellent intuition gave the Chinese market’s appetite for mobile phones, which is now spreading to Western countries. And now what? While social networks are mainly mobile, they converge on conversational-first. Mark Zuckerberg’s March 7, 2019, statement reflected it on Facebook’s shift: “Today, we are already seeing that private messaging, ephemeral stories and small groups are by far the fastest growing areas of online communication. The firm wants to aggregate the messaging from Facebook, Instagram, and Whatsapp into a single, secure messaging system. The creation of a complete ecosystem entering through messaging, inspired by WeChat, is gradually being unveiled.
Network effects can be misleading
Google thought it had its users in its pocket and easily attracted a substantial number of them to Google+ thanks to its 500 million user base, which it merely wanted to rotate from Gmail, Youtube, etc. Due to the effects of mandatory networks, the critical mass would quickly be reached, allowing the platform to be scaled up. However, the Mountain View firm has forgotten the effects of networks that were already working on Facebook. At that time, Facebook already had nearly 800 million users and allowed developers to connect their websites to the platform through Facebook Connect. Users have no interest in duplicating the same use on another platform, and the costs of psychological transfers are dissuasive. If Google managed to switch 90 million users very quickly to the Google+ network, it did not take off. Three years later, the results are relentless: 90% of users spend less than 5 seconds on Google+. Beyond the number, on a social network, commitment takes precedence. Nothing worse than a ghost platform: word of mouth triggers a negative virality on the product.
Any social network must serve a specific purpose
“Vic was that little bug in Larry’s ear that kept saying, “Facebook is going to kill us,” says a former Google executive about the Google+ architecture. “He probably managed to scare Larry into action. And that’s it: Google+ was born.” Google has therefore developed this network as a copy of Facebook to compete with it, not to meet market demand. A network that had no more attractive value proposition than Facebook or differentiating to attract users. If users “multihoming” by using several platforms for the same service, each social network has a specific use: Facebook as a digital identity to exchange with a relatively close network, Twitter as an information and opinion sharing network, LinkedIn as a professional network or Instagram to create and be inspired.