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A challenger appears

If you look on my company’s team page, you’ll find my picture captioned “Overrater”. I take this caption somewhat in stride, because being involved in developing many of the analytic algorithms at our office means that I’m spending a lot of my days “rating” client’s Facebook Pages and presences. The reason the caption is there though, is that I have a strong tendency to not be impressed with things most people seem to like (“Shark Week”, “Avatar”, “Top Gun”, college football, to name a few) and call them overrated.

Which brings me to Google’s new, much touted social network called, simply: Google Plus. Google+ isn’t Google’s first entry into the social arena, but it’s their newest and inarguably their strongest. And while Google enjoyed excellent early reviews as well as an early influx of 10 million enthusiastic users, my impressions of Google+ are much less enthusiastic. My initial impressions of what’s wrong with Google+, after the break.

New interface, same network

One thing that Google+ certainly got right was its interface, which is, in a word, slick. The News Feed page is well laid out, the Circles page uses some HTML5 magic to enable drag-and-drop circle management, the Profile page is attractive and informative, and Hangouts and group video chatting are well put-together and unique.

But it’s not original. And this is what Google needs to be concerned about: there isn’t anything Facebook couldn’t replicate, if they wanted to, within a month. And until Google+ has more of your friends than Facebook, which is no modest feat, most users are willing to put up with some feature differences and deficiencies in order to reach more of their friends. The same theory applies to Android vs. iPhone, at least early on: most early adopters picked iPhone because, despite the fact that it was on AT&T, there were more apps and the platform was more mature.

In order to prove this fact, I set out to replicate Google+’s Circles interface using the Facebook friend lists API. I was able to do this pretty easily, and most of my development time was eaten up in a) synchronizing Javascript Facebook API calls properly, and b) revamping the user interface after deciding that a straight rip of Google’s Circles interface would choke under a large amount of friends. All told, I’ve probably sank about 8-10 hours of work into my copy, and I’ve deployed it here and open-sourced it here (update: this link is now fixed). The entire app is HTML, CSS and JavaScript, so feel free to grab a copy, install it on a server somewhere, and try it out for yourself. As I noted in the disclaimer, I only really tested the app on Chrome, but it should work in Firefox, Safari, etc., with IE being a bit of a long shot.

In the end, I feel like I came up with a pretty good lists manager, which shows that if someone at Facebook feels like it, they could make a much better lists manager than they have right now, in a short amount of time (and friend lists on Facebook, are, more or less, Circles on Google+). The same goes for every Google+ feature; no Google+ feature is paradigm-altering, it’s just a fresh take on an old idea.

No brand love

Make no mistake, part of the reason Facebook’s growth really exploded in 2009 was the introduction of Pages. For the first time, brands could have a legitimate presence on Facebook, and could graduate from the role of black sheep in the advertising blocks. As brands rushed to make their presence known in this new channel, they were quick to pollenate their page with fans of their traditional media advertisements, by including lines such as “Find us on Facebook” on a TV ad or the Facebook URL on a print ad. As those advertising pushes got more incentivized, non-Facebook users were convinced to join Facebook by the promise of free stuff, like sweepstakes entries, free coupons, etc.

This is an underrated factor in Facebook’s growth, but shouldn’t be forgotten. And the fact that Google+ failed to launch with not only a robust solution for brands, but that they launched with a controversial restriction against everyone except genuine, single users is a huge barrier to adoption.

Limited platform

The biggest reason Facebook’s growth exploded is that in 2007, Facebook launched a platform which enabled developers to develop applications for Facebook. Google+’s initial platform, while existent, certainly isn’t as substantial as Facebook’s and doesn’t allow the embedding of apps within the canvas like Facebook does – it simply integrates sharing links with your website, like Facebook’s social plugins. This is fine for now, but it’s not going to help Google grow the service as much as it’d like. In the future, Google has announced plans to keep games separate from the rest of Google+. But there’s a miscalculation here: Google+ users aren’t typically interested in games, at least not ones on their social network. So really, it remains to be seen how much even a platform will help growth.


But perhaps the biggest problem with Google+ is that while a lot of people have accounts, but after the initial excitement, there’s really just not a whole lot of activity. Thus, users aren’t logging in every day, and the service becomes forgotten. One of the main reasons Facebook has succeeded the way it has is that, even early on, it has had exceptional retention. The lack of that retention is what’s hurting Google+ now.

There are a couple ways this can be addressed. First, figure out a fix for the people with multiple Google accounts (Google Apps for your Domain users) so they don’t see this screen:

Second, integrate Google+ with what is probably Google’s second-most precious asset right now: Google Chrome. To me, this is something that should have been done from the start, as it would have been a more compelling product and one that Facebook couldn’t have replicated directly, at least not using Google Chrome (it wouldn’t surprise me if Facebook was building a browser of their own based on Chromium, Google Chrome’s open source brother). As a Chrome user, it’d also keep Google+ in my face all day, almost forcing more activity and more awareness.

I’ve heard the argument that “Google+ isn’t competing with Facebook; they’re two separate products.” The problem is: the general public won’t see it that way. Most people don’t have two social network accounts, and even less have three. With Facebook, Twitter, and now Google+, the social networking field is getting crowded. Google getting 10 million users doesn’t impress me anymore; they’ve done that in the past with Wave and Buzz. Google’s big problem is that it doesn’t just need 10 million users; it just needs what Facebook has: 130 of your closest friends.

Originally posted on Cleveland, Curveballs and Common Sense on August 1, 2011 at 9:41 AM. Post text content © 2011 Jimmy Sawczuk. All rights reserved.