Some time around 2012, I attended a marketing conference downtown in Washington, DC. The main event was a product manager from Google being piped in on a big screen from the west coast to evangelize for its social network, Google+.
His message? In the next five years, he said, Google+ will be Google.
Think about the gravity of that proposition given the share of search traffic and ad budgets the company commands.
Google+ was probably more than just a social network, it was a bet on personalized search results. Google was playing for data, like the interests Facebook was getting and using to entice marketers with a different means of targeting online advertising.
I believed the hype. A lot of people did. There are several marketers in the space today that made their name on that platform.
Google+ Hope and Hype
And it was great, for a while. Google+ links could be indexed in search. It sent traffic. The +1 button drove engagement. It elevated different people than Twitter and Facebook. Authorship seemed promising then, and even more so today as an answer to fake news.
However, the company also tried to pad the numbers and create the perception that things were better than they were. It bumped up user counts by giving a Google+ account to every Google user, including people who didn’t even know they had a Google+ account (it did this with Orkut too). It integrated and then decoupled YouTube and Hangouts.
Then Google gave up.
Long List of Abandoned Projects
As it is at big companies, as executives come and go, so too do the visions, roadmaps, and priorities. From the outside looking in, it sure seems like a long internal political battle, because Google+ didn’t die suddenly, instead, Google let it suffer from a slow decay, picking through its parts for recycling which kept some people guessing.
In the grander scheme, how or why Google+ died isn’t as important as the fact that Google let it die. The one-time social network joins a long list of abandoned projects – Friend Connect, Wave, Buzz, and Reader to name a few – dispatching evangelists to promote projects and sign up users only to leave them holding an empty bag.
What’s to stop Google from doing this to other projects? What if they shuttered Drive? Or even Android, as a rumor-fueled article by BGR suggests? Nothing. It’s a free market. Google can do whatever it wants. As the saying goes, if it’s free, you are the product, and with Google, you double as the beta tester.
You can choose to participate or not, but how many times does the company get to run this play before people stop trusting it? It’s like Lucy promising to hold the football for Charlie Brown.
Google and Trust
In fairness, everything the company says or does gets over analyzed. That’s the price of leadership.
When Matt Cutts was doing his video series, I used to joke that his words were parsed up like a transcript from the last Fed meeting on interest rates. Irattional exuberance somehow becomes less accommodative.
Yet we live in ever more complicated times even as the company has worked its way into more technology corners, like IoT. Google may see these as separate projects, but its users feel a unified experience.
This means the broken promise of Google+ is interwoven with all sorts of related interests such as the veracity in analytics, brand safety and data privacy concerns. That the company dodged disclosing a breach and loss of data for months to avoid a hotter seat on Capitol Hill, is a capstone on what I perceive to be a growing problem Google has with trust.
Trust in business is plummeting – if you believe the Edelman Trust Barometer – and during a time when trust is at an all-time premium. If Google is serious about getting people to believe what it says about anything then it should start by doing what it says it’s going to do.
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