The long and well-overdue death of Google Plus is underway. In the past year, we’ve witnessed the service come apart slowly as the company spins off some of its more useful features. When it became clear that the Facebook competitor couldn’t “out-Facebook Facebook,” Google began to de-emphasize Plus. It’s executive champion’s vision didn’t match reality, and he left his job after costing the company likely hundreds of millions of dollars in man hours and resources. The eventual result will undoubtedly be its disappearance from Google’s portfolio. Before it’s all said and done, much ink (or maybe bits?) will be spilled to explain what happened and why.
From a service management perspective, what went wrong with Google Plus? There are probably a few ITSM lessons to be learned from this costly mistake.
Customer Needs vs. Google Plus
As an alternative to Facebook, Google Plus was an interesting concept. Because it tied together existing Google services and had a comfortable (if perhaps uninspiring) user interface, it seemed to be a functional and easy-to-use site. Many websites and content aggregation tools added a Google Plus “+1” link share button on their news articles, blog posts, and so forth. It sat side-by-side with Facebook as a method to encourage communication, contact with others, and the usual functions of building a personal social community online. In many ways, it mirrored the functionality of Facebook while providing slightly more control over who would see what from your “feed.”
Was Plus better than Facebook? Probably not. But was it a viable alternative to Facebook? Certainly. With people to this stay still concerned about online safety and Facebook’s corporate indifference to customers’ privacy, Plus seemed like the only possible social network that could compete with Facebook effectively. Surely Google’s web savvy and engineering capabilities could make a real go of things.
But in all of this, what made Plus a compelling service for users? What would make a customer want to switch away from Facebook? Would the customer’s friends all want to switch as well? From the perspective of the customer, the initial experience of adding new friends to Plus’s “circles” methodology was tedious and time-consuming. Few people enjoy categorization for its own sake, particularly when the “do it yourself” approach is essential to the user experience. Migrating away from Facebook was never going to be a simple process, but Google didn’t help to reduce the pain points either.
And what about all the deep integrations with online games, media, photos, and the virtual ecosystem of third-party partners and their apps? What would be their motivation to re-tool their products to work with yet another online service? In many cases, they didn’t and Plus consequently didn’t drive much traffic to them. More to the point, when developers saw Plus didn’t offer a large user base — particularly with unique users in comparison to Facebook’s user base — many realized the resource use to integrate with Plus might be a low-return effort. Google didn’t offer many incentives to encourage that development, nor did it encourage app builders to integrate with its product. Google’s laissez-faire approach to many of its add-on “marketplaces” (think the Android Play store, Chrome add-ons, etc.) mean that developers are largely on their own. Google’s outreach is noteworthy with things like their I/O conference and online documentation, but support is otherwise few and far between. As customers in their own right, app developers needs weren’t addressed either.
The Failure of a Service
A service management professional might look at what happened with the Plus product and ask what user needs were fulfilled by it. At the time Plus was launched, the market seemed to have an appetite for a Facebook alternative, so the opportunity for traction was certainly available to Google. But the adoption rate was low and the service didn’t evolve as quickly as has Facebook.
The obvious question to ask is this: in all of Google’s extensive research and preparation for launching Plus, did it take the time to understand the needs of its users and move to meet those needs? Sure, the service eventually launched by the company was a fully featured social network, but it was undistinguished. Was building a “me too!” sort of product enough to guarantee a market? The product got out of the service strategy phase of the service lifecycle without having much of an obvious approach besides “don’t be Facebook.”
Another aspect that hampered interest and adoption was how the product became available to Google’s customer base. The product launched with great fanfare in 2011, but Google decided to use an “invite” system to artificially limit growth for nearly 3 months in the beginning. By that point, many potential users never came back to try it out. One could call this a mistake in service transition.
Additionally, were Google’s customers well-served by its forcing the use of Plus accounts to access previously standalone services? Some YouTube users saw their experience get worse because of the required integration. And it took Google years to decide to reverse this poorly received decision.
Service Strategy is Key
Google learned the hard way that having a well researched and carefully planned strategy for new services is key to success. Google Plus was built in a strategy of fear of Facebook, and that turned out to be a bad approach. Its Plus ended up as an also-ran in a company known for producing market transforming products. The failure of Plus will have lasting ramifications for Google, as we are now seeing with the company pursuing restructuring plans.