Google Plus, the company’s ambitious social network project, was finally laid to rest last week. What started as a relative success with promise ended as one of Google’s most apparent failures. The platform at one point had over 500 million active users, but eventually they all fell away. In fact, Google even admitted that by 2018, 90 percent of Google Plus user sessions were less than five seconds. So what happened? What took Google Plus from rising star to afterthought?
The Early Years of Google Plus
Despite what it became, Google Plus did, in fact, start strong. When it came on the scene in 2011, it had a range of features that other social networks, at the time, did not. The platform had a levity to it that encouraged connection. It allowed for hashtags like Twitter and extended posts like Facebook. Google Plus Photos would sometimes apply fun effects to uploaded photos, and, like Google’s Doodles, Mr. Jingles was always specially designed for the holidays.
The platform is also where the concept for Hangouts first arose. Hangouts-On-Air and communities were all places for people to connect with each other. Because of this focus on connection, Google Plus was not a great place to get information from your favorite musicians, celebrities, companies, etc. This fact hindered the platform’s mainstream appeal. Rather, it was mostly a home for tech nerds, photographers, and SEO specialists.
Just a look at their most trending hashtags of 2012 reveal this fact. While other social media platforms were swarmed with Gangnam Style and the Presidential Election, Google Plus was flooded with #SOPA, a reference to an anti-piracy bill that was stopped by outraged internet activists.
Despite the niche, it was still successful, reaching 500 million users in those early years. Then, everything changed when one of the founders of Google Plus, and its greatest advocate, left the company.
The Departure of Vic Gundotra (or The Beginning of the End)
Vic Gundotra was enthusiastic, innovative, forward-thinking, and, most importantly, he wanted Google Plus to succeed. His departure from the company completely changed the direction of the site. What followed was a stark contrast from what Google Plus had been and a number of strange decisions.
In 2014, it was reported that Google Plus was being moved to the back burner, resulting in fewer resources, employees, and opportunities for growth. Then, 2015 came with myriad decisions that ultimately led to the site’s demise.
In an interview with Forbes, Sundar Pichai, who at the time was working directly under Google CEO Larry Page, discussed separating certain aspects of Google Plus from the platform. The plan was to “focus on [Hangouts], photos, and the Google Plus stream as three important areas, rather than being thought of as one area.” The company wanted to take the best parts of Google Plus and work on them as individual entities, instead of keeping them tied to the platform.
Later that year, Google Photos was removed completely from the site, as well as YouTube integration and hashtags. Essentially, three of Google Plus’ strongest assets were gone. 2016 brought algorithm-based timelines like Facebook, rather than chronological. By the end of 2016, the platform had lost Google Photos, Hangouts, Hangouts-On-Air, Events, Hashtags, YouTube integration, and a good portion of its staff, resources, and active user base.
It had become a shell of its former self.
The Final Blow
Joe Hindy of Android Authority describes the website’s final days perfectly: “It was like the last day of a festival. Some people were still around, but active users were few and far between and trash was everywhere.”
In the middle of 2017, the beloved Mr. Jingles met his demise. Some redesign in 2017 and even in early 2018 brought limited life back to the platform, but it was clear that Google Plus was on its way out. Bots and spam flooded the site.
Finally, in March of 2018, Google discovered a vulnerability in their system that exposed the private data of up to 500,000 users. At the time, Google did not inform the public because the exposed data had not been accessed by anyone. Additionally, since the leak happened before the updated GDPR ruling in Europe, they felt no legal obligation to share the information.
When the vulnerability was discovered, the company decided it was not worth the effort to keep Google Plus alive. They finally pulled the plug on October 8: “To give people a full opportunity to transition, we will implement this wind-down over a 10-month period, slated for completion by the end of next August.”
Thus, its users left have 10 months to pack up their things and move to another form of social media. While Google Plus was predictably the first to go, it’s departure is emblematic of the current state of social media and data security. An information breach was strong enough to deliver the killing blow to Google Plus, and while Facebook is still alive in the wake of 2018, could this be marking the end of social media as we know it?