Once hotly anticipated as a potential Facebook competitor, Google+ has been struggling with a fundamental lack of demand since its 2011 inception. Lacking an obvious niche to differentiate itself from established sites, Google+ failed to steal friends and family from Facebook, professionals from Linkedin, or celebrities from Twitter. To nudge Google users toward its own social platform, the company integrated Google+ into all of its other products. Suddenly, commenting on a YouTube video, accessing your Google Photos, and checking your Gmail required a Google+ account. This provoked obvious resentment among Google users perceiving the integration as an unwelcome product push. Though this forced coupling has certainly inflated Google+’s membership levels, it hasn’t stoked the social activity desired by its creators. Research has classified only 0.2-0.3% of Google+ users as “active” posters on Google+ proper. Presumably, the remaining 99% use it exclusively as a gateway to the services they actually want to use.
In response to anemic activity levels and mounting criticism, Google has gradually begun to split Google+ into its many component parts. Already the company has divorced its photo app from Plus, forming an independent Google Photos app in its place. A Monday (07/27/2015) announcement that users will no longer need to use their Google+ accounts to sign into YouTube continued the trend. These changes have fueled the already burning speculation that Google+ is dead.
However, these changes instead signal a strategic shift. Instead of trying to unite all of its users’ Google activities into one profile, Google+ will now focus more exclusively on providing an “interest based social experience” . Its Communities provide a forum for users to discuss common interests like fitness, travel, or investments. The new feature Collections offers another avenue for connection by allowing users to create boards of content centered on specific interests.
Though the company will deploy these changes gradually through 2015, its “divide and conquer” strategy has shown promising results. Decoupling from Google+ has afforded Google Photos the capacity to revolutionize photo storage, photo sorting, and face detection (http://www.theverge.com/a/sundars-google/google-photos-google-io-2015). If Google+’s developers can devote its resources solely to strengthening its interest-based groups, Communities could potentially dominate the market for traditional message boards (http://www.theverge.com/2015/7/28/9054719/why-google-plus-has-to-shrink-to-grow). Certainly, Google boasts a name, resource, and design advantage over most underfunded, small message boards. While Facebook also contains groups, Google+ Community discussion categories offer a more digestible and directed user experience.
By dismantling Google+, Google seems to have accepted that its social media product will never meaningfully compete with Facebook and Twitter as a general-use platform. But by occupying an ignored internet niche, Google+ Communities and Collections could build the social connections Google has wanted to cultivate all along.