Contrary to popular belief, not everything Google touches turns to gold, Google+, for example, has long struggled – outside of a very niche audience – and it’s an open question as to why Google has kept the service alive for so long, given its general ruthlessness in killing off services that don’t meet its expectations (for example Google Authorship, Google Buzz and Google Wave. Not to mention the still mourned Google Reader).
The question about why Google+ lasted so long is especially bewildering given that Google already owned YouTube, which is indisputably one of the most successful social media platforms there is. It didn’t need extra, failing service. Whatever the reason, Google+ has long been hanging around the digital ether since 2011, but possibly not for much longer.
The history of Google+ is an interesting one because it’s hard to avoid the feeling that if Google had really got its management act into gear, Google+ could have been a major contender in the social media stakes.
Google essentially followed a strategy which could be roughly summarised as “how to lose friends and alienate people” by trying to force integration when users didn’t want to be integrated, for example, insisting people had a Google+ account to sign up for Gmail or to leave YouTube comments. At the same time, however, Google+ was unable to integrate with external software providers, so whereas Twitter and Facebook users could have extra functionality and ease of integration, Google+ users had to go to the site and do everything manually.
In 2014, however, Google seemed to admit defeat, at least tacitly, when Vic Gundotra, the champion of Google+ left the company and, little by little, Google+ was quietly dismantled. Its successful features were siphoned off and turned into separate services (Hangouts, Google Photos and YouTube Live) and its integration with other Google services was rolled back. Google was basically leaving it to die rather than putting it out of its misery, which, turned out to be a serious mistake.
Google continued operating Google+ with what would appear to be minimal oversight, certainly too little to notice a bug in its systems that exposed certain elements of user data, even when they were designated as private.
While Facebook management may feel a certain degree of schadenfreude at this news, it’s worth noting that none of this data appears to have been used for political purposes. This could count for something with the regulators, who are almost guaranteed to take an interest in the matter, particularly in the EU with GDPR in force and no great love between Google and the authorities there.
Investors and users, however, have both reacted quickly and furiously, albeit for different reasons. Investors are angry about the fact that Google did not notify them of the bug when they discovered it and, rather ironically, the dedicated Google+ users who are loyal to the platform are angry at the fact that the service is being ended.
While Google+ really was never anything more than a minority platform, it did have a niche user base that was perfectly happy with it and even now there’s at least the theoretical possibility that it could make the platform a success if it continued with it. That, however, seems unlikely, whereas a hefty fine from one or more regulators seems very likely indeed.