The good, the bad, and the ugly of Google Plus

Of all the Google social efforts, Plus has the best chance of making something great.

Google Plus(or: Why Johnny Can’t Friend)

Google Plus is, of course, Google’s second attempt at conquering the world of social networking (or third, or fourth, depending on which of Orkut, Buzz, Wave, et al. you count). Google has rightly been dinged in the past for being a over-cocky engineer-driven Johnny-come-lately, without the design sense of Apple or the agility of Facebook. Plus represents a significant change in how they approach and release product, so it’s worth stepping back a little to see how it stacks up.

The good

It’s instructive to compare and contrast Wave with Google Plus. Wave was a skunkworks run from Australia, they built a separate system to replace email/IM/Docs/etc., they launched with a bang at Google I/O, then discovered nobody could figure out how to drive it. Plus is run from Mountain View, they’ve built some new stuff but a lot of work has been integration with other teams in Google, and they’ve soft-launched (as softly as Google can launch anything) outside of a major event, and they’ve had a UX team working on it headed by Andy Herzfeld of Mac fame. They have learned from experience.

Of course, once you accepted that Wave Was Going To Replace Everything, skunkworks made perfect sense. You can develop a self-contained app or feature in a skunkworks. But every Google service will have a social dimension, so they couldn’t build Plus in isolation. The conception of Google Plus as the social infrastructure for every Google service means that it has very different development path, release, and success conditions.

Furthermore, they’re learning as they go. They’re releasing early (the Google Plus for Android app resets to the home screen every time you switch to another app and then back again; Plus is far from feature-complete; the Photo UI is undercooked) but they’re learning from feedback. They have a great feedback mechanism (taking a screenshot from within the browser, letting you highlight and black out regions, so your comments appear in context) and are getting a heap of it. Features are being added and code cut as a result of that feedback.

It’s obvious that the Google Plus team are not blindly copying Facebook or Twitter. They’ve set out to solve the problem that “friend” or “follower” doesn’t accurately represent our social relationships and doesn’t permit fine-grained sharing. They want to solve problems like: I’ll show my kid pictures to my family and friends, but everyone can see the pictures from my visit to the Computer History Museum. Circles and activity streams are how they’re tackling the problem: you tag your friends (“put them in a circle”) and your posts (“share this post with these circles and individuals”), then see the latest activity from people within a circle.

They were very clever to launch with Hangouts, group video chat. It undermined Skype, Facebook were left flatfooted (cf their rather lame launch of video chat), and well, they’re quite cool. Already there are success stories of family hangouts and business use of them.

And finally, they launched with a huge pile of PMs and developers on the product. This feels different: I can hear straight from the horse’s mouth what’s coming and what they acknowledge is broken. It’s more immediate and personal than the product blogs that Google has used in the past. It is, of course, a massive poaching tool for Facebook and other orgs hoping to recruit from Google. I hope that doesn’t stop it being used for user-to-developer contact the way it is now.

The bad

On the flip side, though, it’s another social network. Like all Google projects, Plus makes an attempt to Not Be Evil: you can export your profile, posts, and circles of contacts thanks to the Data Liberation front. But, at its heart, you’re telling Google who you know, what you listen to them about, and what you’re interested in. It’s a massive advertiser’s honeypot.

That is, of course, why Google and Facebook and Twitter are in this business: they make money from advertising. By using their services you’re participating in a giant Faustian bargain: you get free photo hosting and the ability to yap away to your mates, but in return they get to use all that information to advertise to you. And, of course, simply by collecting the information it’s now available to regular law enforcement, the secret police, lulzsec, and other opportunistic parasites feasting off the corporation’s data reserves. And if you make it public, it’ll be scraped by credit agencies, the secret police, and everyone else who wants to build a profile of every person on the planet.

You’ll notice that none of the social networks have subscription options. Nobody says “pay me $100/yr and I’ll keep all your data private and you can have an ad-free experience.” My hypothesis is that this is because your data is worth more to Google, Facebook, and Twitter than you can justify paying for it: they don’t want $100 from you when they can earn $500 or $1,000 targeting advertising to you as you use their sites. They certainly don’t have a federation model.

Nobody’s thinking beyond a centralized profit model, either. AdSense made money for small website publishers, who previously didn’t have a way to commercialize what they did. Mac App Store has made it so easy to make money from software that people now sell rather than give away. There’s no vision in Google Plus to reinvent social networking in a similar platform fashion, creating more value than they capture.

Ok, I’m being melodramatic and ranting. The tl;dr is: Google Plus has not innovated at all in business model.

The ugly

What’s ugly about Google Plus? The UX. I was, like everyone else, mesmerized by the Circles UI. “Circles” seemed a great metaphor for my social network, I mean we already talk about “social circles.” I spent an OCD-happy morning dropping all my friends into the appropriate circles: New Zealand, tech, O’Reilly, etc.

The problems arose when I started to use the circles. If I post something to a circle (e.g., kid pictures to “Family”), someone can reshare that outside the original circle with two clicks. There has, of course, been considerable debate about whether this is a good thing (after all, some say, they could just copy and paste the picture anyway), but I come down firmly against it. If I’m using circles for privacy, I don’t want items to be reshared. Just being able to see my photo doesn’t make you the administrator of it.

That “share” button on other people’s posts makes for another problem: fragmentation of comments. Let’s say Tim posts, asking for places to visit when he’s in New Zealand. I see that and realize I know many more people who could contribute to that discussion, so I reshare it. Now people can comment either on Tim’s original post or on my reshare of it. This makes more work for Tim when he wants to participate in the comments discussion. Sharing blurs endorsement, amplification, and the invitation to comment. Compare with retweeting, for example, where I know that my audience sees it as coming from the original person via me, and replies go to the original poster.

More fundamentally, though circles are used by readers and by writers and they are not adequate to the task. Writers decide who will be interested in what they write: I’m finding that I have to model the mental state of all my friends — will they care about stories of my kids, pictures of gigs I go to, thoughts on technology, rants on NZ politics? And, of course, I can’t model this perfectly: many people in my NZ circle won’t care about my political rants. But they can’t unsubscribe from my NZ rants, they can only take me out of a circle. Unsubscribe isn’t fine-grained enough to be useful.

My classic use case for filters is my good friend James. James tweets about technology and his family, and I want to read those. But he also avidly supports a Canadian ice-hockey team and during games he tweets non-stop about stuff I don’t care about. I want to unsubscribe from his #habs tweets. I know friends who don’t follow me on Twitter because of the floods that come from me during conferences. Google Plus doesn’t deal with these common use cases.

In general, the UI makes it hard to find the stuff I care about. What do I care about? I want to see new things from my friends, I want to see replies to things I’ve written, I want to monitor comment threads I’m a part of, I want to see the stuff my friends like, and I don’t want to see the same stuff again and again. The Google Plus UI mushes all these into a few overlapping streams such that I see the same threads again and again yet can’t find the categories of things I do care about. I think they hope that machine learning will promote relevant items to the top, but the results so far do not make me confident that they can deliver a useful service on this approach. My experience is one of noisy irrelevance.

Currently, Facebook and Twitter both offer a more functional user interface to social activity.

Conclusion

Google is rolling out Plus in the right way: starting small and expanding slowly, learning as they go. I don’t think they’ve got the conceptual model and UI right yet, but I’m enjoying watching it change before my eyes. I still can’t see substantial benefits to consumers in switching to a different centralized social network: it looks like freedom but we’re just leaping out of the Facebook and into the Google. But I’ll continue to experiment because of all the Google social efforts so far, this one has the best chance of making something truly great.


(Google’s Joseph Smarr, a member of the Google+ team, will discuss the future of the social web at OSCON. Save 20% on registration with the code OS11RAD.)

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  • http://profiles.google.com/t.broyer Thomas Broyer

    Nice article, I disagree with some of the “ugly” points though:

    limited sharing (circles) and resharing

    Is it that different from sending by mail? At a different level, it’s not much different from the music and movie business: just because you bought a song/film doesn’t make you an administrator of it and I don’t want you to reshare it online (under other conditions).

    But well, my point is rather that they listened and it has been fixed for a few days: non-public posts cannot be reshared to “public”, and you’re reminded or your responsibilities when you reshare it; plus, you can disable resharing of your posts, on a case by case basis.
    resharing contributes to comment segmentation

    yes, that’s true. BUT:

    • you can disable comments on your reshare and ask people to comment on the original
    • people seeing your reshare might not be able to see the original (it’s your responsibility to reshare to a larger “circle”, see above)
    • when you reshare something, you don’t simply give it more visibility, you can also add a note/comment on it, and comments on your “reshare” are thus not necessarily about the reshared post, but also what you said about it (similar to comments in your “four short links” series might about the perspective your gave to the shared link, or just things like “thanks Nat, exactly what I needed”)

    yet I agree that we should have the choice (and others, including influential Googlers –I’m thinking about Dewitt Clinton– do too, see the comments in https://plus.google.com/117377434815709898403/posts/Zi47SBzQyyA ).

  • http://profiles.google.com/t.broyer Thomas Broyer

    I forgot to say, as have been pointed out in the comments on Plus (where I shared a link to this post, https://plus.google.com/113945685385052458154/posts/86B76xshomP ; see, not even a “reshare”, but still some kind of comment fragmentation –er, did I say ‘segmentation’ above?–) that the “bad” parts you highlight are in my opinion not “that” bad: if someone is to show me some ad, I’d rather see a targeted one. The main difference is that Google (and Facebook) know me not only from what I am “in public”, what I “advertise” myself, but also what I want to keep “private” (mails, docs, events, Plus posts, etc.)
    There are no ads in Plus (who knows if it’ll continue, but some have pointed out that there aren’t in Groups, Reader, Calendar and Docs either, and if you choose to put some on Blogger, they generate revenues to you).

    BTW, sorry for the formatting above, I tried to include a definition list and a bulleted list but they got stripped. You should make it clearer than just “You may use HTML tags for style” what is actually allowed. Let’s hope this one will display better.

  • avi

    Your premise that they make more money from ads than from a subscription I believe is wrong.

    It takes 1,000 users to get a single ad impression count for anything. Say a high CPM of $20… if each of those users spent $1 on the service, it would more than cover the ads.

    Instead, I think people are unwilling to pay for social networks. Some social networks people do pay for, such as dating sites, or linkedIn. But for your generic social network, they wouldn’t be social if you had to pay for them.

  • Nicholas

    I agree with some of these points. The whole point of the circle system is privacy, and sharing kills that. There is the option to just put it out to the public, but that may or may not be what I want to do.

    I could care less about the adds and police, I have add block and I don’t do anything illegal. They can have my data for all I care.

  • Juan-O

    I think, about this “G+ will replace TW” thing: why do still hammers and screwdrivers exist? That’s because they are different tools, for different purposes.

    I think each social media has evolved into a particular type of use, with particular non explicit rules and characteristics. Trying to unify them is a sentence to failure.

  • Chris

    You can flag items to not be reshared. Click the down-arrow on the right of your post and select “Disable reshare.” You can also disable comments if that’s your bag.

  • http://www.rsurbano.com.br Walter

    Very Good.

  • http://twitter.com/tz704 Tyler

    Just began using google + today, and after making my first post, the drop-down menu gives you an option to “disable resharing” – I clicked it, and bam – “share” link on my post is gone.

  • Anthony

    I don’t believe that your privacy concerns about social networking in general deserve a place in this article.

  • Matt Lester

    I just wish i could start using g+. I’ve been reading everything i can, but would LOVE to formulate my own opinion…One day i’ll eventually be able to log in and play with it….

    Matt
    /”T”|[___|___]
    [—T–L -OlllllllO-]
    ()_)”””()_)/”**”)_)

  • http://www.mediacrayon.com Manickam Vijayabanu

    Nat,
    Very Nice and collective information. Let’s discuss more anout once start using in broad way.

    Thanks for Sharing.
    -Manickam

  • http://lukepalmer.wordpress.com Luke Palmer

    Maybe I misunderstood your tone, but you seem to be saying in the “bad” section that Google using information about you to advertise to you is a bad thing. Oh no! God forbid I see ads for things I want instead of big-money names pushing products down everyone’s throat!

    Your other point about that information being available to the government upon request, however, is a bad in my book. I don’t trust the government. I wish I could put the government in a circle and selectively share with them.

  • https://plus.google.com/104550533940223148451/ Chris Smith

    What you said about resharing ruining the Circles concept is completely untrue. One can disable resharing simply by clicking the arrow in the top right corner of a post, and click “Disable Resharing”. This way, everyone you want to see the post can see the post, but no one can share it with other people.

  • mira

    Sounds like some ideas from the Mine! project (http://themineproject.org/) got implementend in G+.

    In the version of Mine! that I had tried out about a year ago, circles were implemented by tagging the posts and the people that would receive them.

  • http://www.vzades.wordpress.com Vinay Jhedu

    I think that you don’t know that you can disable the share button

  • http://it-diary.com Rizwan

    people get tired of one thing everyday. they were tired of orkut, they are are tired of facebook and they will be tired of google +

  • Sam Penrose

    Really fine work; one of the best things I’ve read on social user experience. I love that you treat business model as a first class issue for users. Well done.

  • http://www.arafattehsin.com/ Arafat Tehsin

    Fantastic piece of write-up. Google is just trying to penetrate in every corner where it can advertise in a good way. I appreciate this effort but that does not mean you should reinvent a wheel.

  • Anbu Savithree

    The ‘SEARCH GIANT’ is a Himalayan Adjective given to Google. What else to achieve for you people?
    It is the need of the hour to sustain that goodwill and your researchers should be focused in this.
    Earning or increasing the Profit margin may be the motto of almost all the people who do business. But Profit alone should not be the motto of Google like companies.
    The comment “biasing in favour of Google shopping ” sounds ‘step motherly’, which is not fair .
    Nobody in this World becomes bored with the Mothers’ care and affection.
    Do not force the customers to comment on you thus “you too Brutus”

  • http://www.juraatmedia.com Jason

    Very nice information, i havent started using Google Plus regularly but this article is forcing me to do so.

  • http://www.juraatmedia.com Jason

    Very nice information, i havent started using Google Plus regularly but this article is forcing me to do so.

  • http://www.productcareuk.com Andy Smith

    I have tried personally Google Plus in and out and although it’s a great platform we are still waiting for proper business support. True it’s a free product but I wish they would take care in the way they handle business in future, why do Google make it so hard?

  • http://www.lucidica.com Emily

    I like Google+ and think it offers a lot more than Facebook. I like ‘hangout’ – for someone like me who has friends all over the country it is great as we can all catch up together instead of doing it one at a time. I also like ‘circles’ as it means I don’t need to worry about having people like my mum on there as I can monitor what she sees!
    I just wish more people were on Google+ – but I think that could take a long time as most people I know are comfortable with Facebook and have no intention of switching. Maybe word of mouth will eventually be an impact over whether it becomes popular – it is still early days. But at the moment I mainly use it go video call friends and still use Facebook for everything else.
    What worries me is that we found some stats showing that most managers at Google don’t have a Google+ account or rarely use it. Our CTO wrote a blog article with the stats http://www.lucidica.com/blog/cto/management-of-google-dont-seem-to-love-google/
    but hopefully that will all change :)

  • http://www.paisamaster.com/ George

    Google++ is good but it will take a long long time to get it to where facebook is now.

  • http://www.mysteriesofancientegypt.com/ Shirely N.

    Thank you so much for this great article post, which was just what I was looking for. It is getting more and more complex. I think you explained it well. So fare I like Google Plus, but I don’t use it as much as other social networks.

  • http://www.bridgetorussian.com dustin

    Speaking off bad and google = I know that if someone is using Google adsense (say for some months no problem and money increases double month over month) and then they sign up with advertising on Bing – even though Unique visits continues to climb, the adsense clicks suddenly drop by more then 60%!!! Nothing anyone can do I’m sure, which is why and how Google can do this crap, but I wanted to at least let people know what is happening. Its more then scammy its fraudulent!

  • http://www.onlinebackupreviews.net The Big J

    The biggest challenge for Google is getting facebook users to switch over to G+. There’s a motto “if it aint broke, don’t fix it”, I don’t think facebook users are dissatisfied enough to make a leap from myspace onto facebook.

    During the myspace era, users were annoyed with the lack of personal connection, anyone can be added as a friend unless you opt out, everyone seemed to have friends in 5 figures.

  • http://chris.fewin.gs Chris Fewings

    Thanks for the reminder that there are no free lunches on the internet! I’ve quoted you on my site http://www.chris.fewin.gs/why-is-social-networking-free/

  • http://discounttalk.com.au/ctp-greenslip/ ctp obrien

    10 months on and I think you were right on the money. They are still expanding ever so slowly but surely. Conceptually it still seems to be targeting a slightly different demographic to Facebook and twitter, but who knows what it is growing into.