The real lesson from Google+: Even Google can’t brute-force a social network

By Sarah Lacy , written on July 28, 2015

From The Disruption Desk

I’ve long argued that companies have fundamental DNA that is mostly unalterable.

It’s why Yahoo couldn’t compete with Google’s search algorithm— it’s roots were as a directory and it was best suited as a media company. It’s also why Google can’t compete with Facebook on social: The former was built on a world of computers and algorithms, not how people interact.

Just think of the two missions: Google wants to organize the world’s information and Facebook wants to connect the world. Two very different forms of world domination, if you will. One through data and one through structuring relationships.

No one is saying Facebook is an “un-tech company.” It relies on data as much as anyone else. But its “data set” is a rational gleaning of how more than one billion of us like to communicate, comment, tag, and well .. like nearly anything and everything. Remember the experiment to gauge our emotional reactions to certain newsfeed items? Yeah... For Facebook, the data is us. And even still the social network gets that it doesn’t always understand what makes us tick.

When Google freaked out about missing the social bandwagon it launched Google+. And initially there were some decent bragging rights about adoption. But that’s mostly because it was aggressively pushed via Google’s other services to its vast number of search and email users.

Google+ in many ways coincided with a shift at Google— a deep philosophical shift. The company had long said that one of the “Ten Things We Know to Be True” was that it would never alter organic search results. And yet it launched something called “Search Plus Your World” in 2012 that effectively wedged Google+ up in the top of your feed. Facebook supporters cried foul. Long time Google-watcher Danny Sullivan said the move “favored Google” in a way he “had never seen before,” writing:

These are the first search results that I’ve ever seen on Google that haven’t been inclusive of sources beyond Google, when those sources are available...

Some things that push organic search results down the page have arguably been better for searchers, like the Wikipedia bio box that pops up when you Google someone well known. But given the low adoption of Google+ and much wider adoption of other social networks, it was hard to argue that was in users' best interest. At the time, I argued Google had broken its own promise to user and needed to at least revise its stated core values if it was going to use Search to push its own Johnny-come-lately social network.

But Google was undeterred, pushing Google+ as your identity layer throughout the site. Most controversially at more seemingly-independent Google properties, as when it decreed that only Google+ users could leave comments on YouTube.

Me, Danny Sullivan, Facebook boosters, angry YouTubers, and anyone else concerned ultimately only had to wait. Yesterday, Google’s Bradley Horowitz announced a change that was already underway:

We're going to continue focusing Google+ on helping users connect around the interest they love, and retire it as the mechanism by which people share and engage within other Google products….

This was a well-intentioned goal, but as realized it led to some product experiences that users sometimes found confusing. For instance, and perhaps most controversially, integration with YouTube implied that leaving a comment on YouTube (something users had obviously been doing successfully for years) suddenly and unexpectedly required “joining Google+.”

We decided it’s time to fix this, not only in YouTube, but across a user’s entire experience at Google. We want to formally retire the notion that a Google+ membership is required for anything at Google… other than using Google+ itself. 

In other words, Google is finally getting its Google+ out of all the Google products that most of us use and love.

Hunter Walk— an early employee of YouTube, hardly known for making controversial statements— was one of many who couldn’t resist punching Google+ on the way out, via Twitter:

But to say Google+ failed as a product does not mean Google has failed at “social.” YouTube is highly social, and in some ways Facebook has invested heavily in competing with it of late. Instagram— like YouTube— is a way that teenagers are discovered these days. And YouTube is also Spotify, Pandora, and Apple’s main music competitor. It’s a take-on-all-comers asset that doesn’t make a ton of revenue relative to how long ago it was purchased and the then inflated purchase price. But what a gem nonetheless.

And in a way, Gmail gives Google even keener insights into who we are and how to sell us ads than things we say publicly on Facebook can. In many ways, that's the entire end goal of social.

(Some may also surmise that this move is about Google officially clearing the internal “social deck” for a much-speculated acquisition of Twitter…)

But it’s still interesting to note: Even Google could not brute force a social network. And to ask the question: If Google couldn’t do it, can anyone beat Facebook? That is, anyone that Facebook hasn’t spent $20 billion+ buying already?

Those questions underscore yet another difference in the fundamental DNA and current approach of Facebook and Google. Google’s tactic was to bundle all its services into one. And given that some were highly personal (like Gmail) and others you want to pretend are totally anonymous (like search), that made users highly uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, Facebook— who used to acquire companies, kill their products, and assimilate the talent into the Hacker Way borg— now keeps its properties distinct, with loose ties to prompt growth but little else. WhatsApp, Instagram and Oculus all still mostly have their own identity— meanwhile Facebook has invested heavily in Messenger to compete with the former two. Despite Facebook’s copious collection of data about us and what we like (literally and in Facebook speak), they know there are little idiosyncrasies they just don’t get. So they want as many mobile connection experiments running in tandem under their umbrella as possible. Synergies, smynergies.

Part of this is a change in thinking in the market more broadly. Back when Google+ launched, there was momentum toward all-in-one sites where we go to “be online”-- like AOL in 1994. That seemed to be the real battle between Google and Facebook. But now-- thanks in part to the appification of the Web via mobile-- people increasingly go different places to do individual things. The idea isn’t to be on one site, but to be the one company that has our attention through multiple services and apps.

Those apps don’t need to be tethered together. In fact, the more distinct they seem in some cases, the better. Facebook has taken great pains not to look like it’s taking over its bigger acquisitions, because part of what it’s gaining through those deals is access to users who thought Facebook was too controlling or uncool.

Finally Google is starting to use the same playbook: Loosening its grip to widen its reach.