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The tale of an unwanted gift – how Google+ failed to take off

Anyone that has sprung out of bed on Christmas Day, scampered down the stairs and begun tearing their way through paper will have felt the swell of disappointment that comes from an unwanted gift.

There are, of course, many reasons that feeling swills around the pit of your stomach. You may already have it, own something better, or simply not like the look of it. But how do you react?

Those of you of a polite disposition may well persevere and wear your baseball radio cap around the house once or twice or don those sleeve garters when your favourite auntie calls round. However, it’s only a matter of time before that present is consigned to the rubbish bin or placed in ‘storage’.

In the world of media, this week marked a significant milestone in the lifespan of a launch once heralded as a genuine challenger to ubiquitous social networks Facebook and Twitter.

The arrival of Google+ in June 2011 was greeted with great fanfare. The US giant’s arrival into social media had been the subject of industry whispers for some quite time. After all, given the company’s ubiquitous digital presence, established through a comprehensive suite of products, it would surely become a real player and a game changer, right?

Well, no.

Google has now officially abandoned its policy of forcing new Gmail users to set-up a Google+ profile, and revealed that Authorship profiles will no longer affect SEO rankings. These two decisions have been driven by an inactive user base that Google rather dubiously counts as 300 million. Both steps not only act as a response to some deeply unpopular policies but also look likely to be the first moves in calling time on the platform as we know it.

The truth is Google+ was an unwanted gift from the moment it was presented. Despite the level of interest at launch, it actually arrived at a time when there wasn’t a need for another social platform. People were content with Facebook and Twitter as their platforms of choice. Naturally, its entry into the market carried the sheen of originality that often gives a new platform momentum and presented tech enthusiasts with uncharted territory. However, that freshness was always unlikely to be enough to get people to switch platform, and using the popularity of its other products such as Gmail to try to force people into a relationship was always going to create natural resistance.

Google+ did initially garner positivity around some excellent features. Circles was generally heralded as a great idea as it allowed users to issue posts to just a selection of their friends. However, imitation is often the greatest form of flattery but that adulation will only get you so far when Facebook is the impersonator.

Facebook had already swallowed up a huge number of the audience for a social network, and promptly responded by releasing ‘Friendship Groups’. It did the same thing, but on a service where everyone’s friends were already active. Sorry Google Circles but you’re not really needed anymore.

Equally, Hangouts was a great platform to help users bring their conversations to life through video calls. However, once again, it was entering a competitive space and industry leader Skype introduced a group chat function before partnering with, you guessed it, our old friend Facebook.

Hangouts will remain a relatively useful area for Google, particularly in the business sector where it has managed to build up a user base. That is based on the assumption that its audience can tolerate talking to the inside of their college’s nose for the foreseeable future.

Advertising revenues still remain a holy grail for social networks and despite its omnipotent presence in SEO, Google failed to really empower brands and form a meaningful partnership with them. Many felt forced into using the platform as Google shifted search algorithms to push up +1’ed pages. This only succeeded in trivialising the platform as its existence soon became about increased SEO in most brand and agency eyes.

The potential scale and reach that Google+ offered always gave brands something to target and aim for but the whole platform felt forced. Behind every business are all humans driven by a desire to form meaningful connections with one another and without that the foundations of any partnership will built on rocky foundations.

Google’s future is secure thanks to amazing products it retains. However, like the Christmas jumper that your grandma knit you as a present, it looks like the time has for Google+ to be packed away until the company can find a way to make it relevant to the modern world.

Jonathan Palmer, Head of Social, Vizeum
An edited version of this piece has been published on the Media Guardian Network

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