Bemoaning the health of Google Plus as a social network misses its real value

By James Robinson , written on May 6, 2014

From The News Desk

After Google Plus head Vic Gundotra announced his departure from the company on April 24, the cries of Google Plus is dead started afresh. Google’s social network was walking dead. Or maybe, it was just changing. And so on, etcetera.

But this was just a bubble of activity giving life to a very old narrative, one which misses the point to begin with. The New York Times was tackling this as early as February. Google Plus is not a popular social network. Maybe those who are in the minority that actively use it and will reactive defensively to this pronouncement, but in their guts, they too know it to be true. As a competitor to Facebook or Twitter, Google Plus hasn’t moved the needle.

But the reality is, Google doesn’t need anybody to use Google Plus for it to be hugely valuable.

Google’s applications are omnipresent in our lifes. Gmail is the world’s most popular email service. Two out of every three Web searches are done in Google. Google Maps has a monopoly on desktop mapping and is the map service of choice on 43 percent of all smartphones. One out of seven people across the world visit YouTube each month. Google Plus is at the center of all of this activity, the key to Google’s one log-in mantra, which gives it a 360-degree picture of all of this behavior.

Think of it like this: Facebook is a social network, a place on the Internet that we all go to. We visit it a lot. We can’t stop visiting. But it relies on information that we volunteer. Facebook might not respect your privacy, but it knows as much as you tell it. To get more data it needs to acquire more property: Moves, WhatsApp, Instagram, and so on.

We don’t visit Google Plus, as much as it follows us. Facebook is a friend that can’t keep secrets. Google Plus is the stalker you didn’t know you had. It catalogs our thoughts and queries. It knows where we work and live, who we correspond with and what we find entertaining.

Google’s ad sales may be flagging right now, but thanks to Google Plus helping to knit all of its services together it has a massive data advantage. A 2013 report from Forrester quantified as much: Facebook knows what you like, Google knows who you’re talking about and spending time with.

As scary as it is to think about, Google doesn’t need a social network. It pretty much knows it all anyway. It’s often creepy ambitions to create a next level social identity, however, couldn’t have happened without Google Plus.