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The Big FAIL: How Google is Screwing Up Social, Again

2011 July 7

I don’t know what the folks at Google have against the “+” character, but it must have done something to them in the past, since they’re about to be lowering it to the level of such words as Orkut, Wave, and Buzz. Those names, which you have likely forgotten by now, are Google’s previous social network platforms, and they are all outright failures. And with Google+, whose name smacks of “New Coke,” they are also threatening to hurt their own image in a long-term manner.

Many wanted to like Google+, the search engine giant’s attempt to drink Facebook’s milkshake. They have a decent take on privacy, which revolves around a visualization of social circles. I’ve ripped on Google in the past, but this particular aspect seems intelligent, something that even the most avid Farmville farmer can understand. It is clever to the tech nerds, and makes sense to the rest, and for most companies rolling out a new product, that’s a lot of the work you need to do. But most companies wouldn’t trip over their shoelaces while trying to walk to unlock their doors.

Facebook is used by millions, many of whom use it begrudgingly. The site is bloated with content, in the way the now-dead MySpace is bloated with flash animations and crappy bands. Using Facebook is a continuing series of compromises to those who do not love it, and want it to be a more serious endeavor. Those people were willing to forgive Google’s previous failings at social networks in order to attempt a rush away from Facebook. Google has the resources, and therefore the potential, to provide the premiere social networking community for those who want something better. For a new social network to even cross the threshold of its own definition, to become a network instead of just a framework for a network, it needs a hum of traffic. All they have now is the occasional passerby.

And to get to the heart of the argument, nobody can come up with a legitimate reason for why they’re so user-count crippled. Their invitation system began with a blast of emailed invitations. This was when I learned of Google+, and while I didn’t know much about it, I thought enough of it to ask a prominent tech blogger I know for an invitation. What I did know was that Google was, and is, aiming right at Facebook’s strengths, the tactic of the confident. When I tried to use my invitation, though, I got the message you see to the right.

When I saw the words “make sure you’re the first to know,” the rest of what they were saying hit with the impact of the inaudible adults on Peanuts. Whenever a company on the internet tells you to leave your email address so that you’ll be the first to know, that’s a grand oversimplification. Theoretically, you could be the first to know, but in practice, many people will find out before you do. Email doesn’t all move at the same pace, since Google, like any company, will be staggering their announcement emails. The last line especially irked me, as they declared that the invites sent out were null and void, and if you had one, it was meaningless, since others were getting this “Keep Me Posted” option as well.

What we know, from what Google has said publicly and what sources have told me privately, is that Google wasn’t really ready for this much attention. They didn’t want this much attention. In a way, that’s noble to me. To have patience is respectable, but in the public eye, not everybody can be forgiving. And when the invites stopped working, it got annoying.

Their current public line on the matter is, and this is quoted from one of the last visits I made to Google+:

– An important note about Field Trial –You’re a part of a small group of people who are helping to test Google+. When you share something with people who are not yet able to use Google+, they will receive it via email but won’t be able to comment or engage with the content like other Google+ users. They’ll be able to join Google+ as we let more users in over time.

What you need for a social network to soar is an active install base: many, many friends posting a lot of content. What Google+ has right now is the upper crust of the tech-savvy folks on the internet, and nobody else. And while that’s cool, it’s not diverse enough to get people to come back. Facebook has all the people you had a crush on in high school, the one decent roommate you had in college, and the (possibly!) newly single coworkers of today. It makes no sense at all for Google to even possibly be shutting those people out of their service, because in a fast news industry, which the tech news industry is, they’re printing tombstones every day.

When Facebook started, it became accessible through what is called a slow roll-out. First they appeared in the Ivies, then the UK Ivies, followed by hippie liberal arts colleges, then every kind of school, and finally, anywhere with internet. This was owed to both the difficulty of scaling a new business, and to build demand. Luckily for Zuckerberg and Co., they had no competition (thanks to a MySpace malaise and the Winklevii) which meant they were only competing against themselves at the time. Google+, though, is launching into direct competition against Facebook, which means that they have no spare time. This is important, because whatever they’re doing wrong is costing them dearly; and I don’t believe this is about Google’s capacity to handle traffic. They’re famous for giving away the free email service with the largest storage capacity. Google’s storage system is based around the largest imaginable grid of cheap hard drives that are replaced by hand the second something goes wrong.

This leaves buggy quality as the remaining reason for the closed gates. Yes, it could be buggy, but buggy is something people are used to, especially with Google. They tag everything with the word Beta, branding webpages with it long after the word really has any meaning beyond “people are working on this, so don’t worry.” I’ve been told by someone with decent enough ties to Google that they’re doing this to keep user feedback limited to the techie crowd, so that they’re not sifting through lay-person feedback. This is the most logical explanation I’ve heard so far, but I’d think that understanding what more normal folks think of their site would be good for the long term when they eventually scale up.

What people don’t like is being told to wait. Today’s consumer is 100% on-demand, and Google not realizing this truth is a bad sign that they’re not ready to do social yet. Facebook, the enemy they are obviously aiming at, is fully formed. This isn’t the Death Star in A New Hope: there are no weaknesses other than the restless userbase. There is barely a functionality area that Facebook hasn’t tried to integrate yet. And to quote Omar Little from David Simon’s The Wire: “You come at the King, you best not miss.”

Google, though, seems confident in their product, at least based on reporting coming from Mashable, which states that Google will retire long-standing brands Blogger and Picasa in order to give Google+ a stronger push. And as much as I want to laugh at them for their mistakes, I also hope they’re right. As a chance to let them speak for themselves, here’s a link to a public Google+ post from Christian Oestlien, the Google+ Ads Lead, explaining where they’re taking Google+. Good luck, good sirs.

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Update: as of just before midnight, on Wednesday, July 6th, the invite system may have re-opened. I have sent out a big invite batch to some people, trying to see what I could do in google+. Of course, updates to follow. Update: Thursday, July 7, 10am: Sorry, it’s closed again.

•   •   •

Henry Casey, currently Editor-in-Chief of The Busy Signal, thanks you for your continued visits to our web page. We will be upgrading our look soon. Henry also posts on Twitter and Tumblr — accounts on Facebook and Google+ accounts also exist, but that’s not somewhere he is making content. You can pry the Oxford Comma from his cold, dead hands. Additionally, Busy Signal Conversation Contributor Blake Malin has a new project: worn&wound, a blog dedicated to really well designed watches that fall within a reasonable price range.

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