Remember when Google Plus "flopped"? Well, it didn’t. In fact, it was, and still is, just part of Google’s plan—but everyone (including the media) has trouble seeing it as anything other than a swing and a miss for the explosive overtaking of Facebook, which is what most people believe was Google’s intention with Google Plus. Sure, I bet Google hoped in the back of its mind it would get lucky and eclipse Facebook, but Google certainly wasn’t counting on it.
99% of the people in Silicon Valley I’ve talked to about this, including some very, very bright folks with quite a bit of money and clout, will tell you that Google Plus flopped. They have, in their own minds, written it off entirely. The remaining 1%, while willing to consider that it didn’t flop, are still so tepid that they refuse to stake any credibility on saying it will be successful (which I would measure as having the same level/range of active users as the other big social networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.). Articles written by that 1%, like this one, are all chock-full of "mights" and "maybes."
But I'm willing to stake my reputation on the following statement: If Google Plus doesn’t have a staggering number of active users by the end of 2013, you can all come over to my office and pie me in the face.
Google knows when they have failed (Buzz, Wave, etc). It shoots those products in the head like zombies, and they move on.
So then why didn’t Google shut down Google Plus if it was purportedly such a colossal flop? Why is the team working on it the size of the contracting team building the Death Star? And why is Google integrating its other products with Google Plus at a freakish, breakneck pace? Is Google just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic? No—because it wasn’t not a flop at all, and its adoption rate was what Google expected.
Google Plus never was, and will never be, only about competing directly with Facebook.
From its launch through today, everyone viewed Google Plus as "Google’s version of Facebook," because that’s the only sticky, simple headline that we can wrap our brain around. Most people believe it’s just another social networking service where all of our friends are supposed to join and share photos, status updates, and messages with each other. But it’s really not that at all.
We all glommed onto the concept of "Google’s version of Facebook," and focused only on comparing the similarities and differences between the two (such as number of users it had, whether "Circles" are "good," and how "hangouts" are weird). But in reality, none of that matters. I happen to think Circles are a slightly smarter way to organize your personal connections, but it’s a "feature" that Facebook could copy with their eyes closed in a single hackathon. It is not the kind of thing that decides success or failure.
What makes Google Plus different is that it is the new backbone of a company that does search better than anyone already—something Facebook could never compete with. You use Google to search, right? Well, imagine if Google knew every piece of data about you that Facebook knew. Imagine how better equipped they would be to serve you what you are looking for. Google Plus is a way of entrenching Google’s dominance in that area, not a way of stealing Facebook users. If you are in first place, that’s the time to accelerate your lead.
Google Plus’s brilliant method of gaining new users is playing out right in front of our eyes, but no one recognizes it.
When talking to smart people (some of them technology-based venture capitalists) about Google’s method of getting new users, the same thing happens every time: First they chortle. Then, after delivering a two-minute explanation, they hem and haw for a bit… and for a fleeting moment you can feel the struggle of trying to reconcile some rock-solid logic coming from an entrepreneur whom they know is not an idiot, and their own very concrete impression of Google Plus as a widely known failure. It’s like an immovable force is meeting an unstoppable object inside the brain. The easier answer and the incumbent usually wins in this situation. Here’s that two-minute explanation for the rest of you:
Google Plus’s user acquisition strategy is to methodically absorb certain verticals using the carrot instead of the stick.
Yes, of course Google could force most of us to use Google Plus begrudgingly tomorrow if it wanted to, but that’s playing with big, big, brand fire. And that’s not really who Google is at its core anyway. It has shown the will to resist sexy, positive impacts to the bottom line in order to hold onto who it is as a company and this is a good example of that. So how does Google do this?
Step one: Corral every single blogger. Have you used Google lately and noticed faces appearing next to certain posts? That’s called Google Authorship—bloggers can link their Google Plus profile to the content they create. Guess how many online writers see that and say "Eh, I don’t need to have that." If you said "zero" you win a prize. All you need is a Google Plus account with a headshot to glue this up to all your posts, and it adds tremendous value to bloggers who can now claim their posts instead of having Google show a "stolen" version ahead of their own. Not only a tremendous value to the person searching (who is finding the person who truly generated the content) but also the content generator who no longer has to worry about this infuriating issue. In short—huge value and a 100% adoption rate of a specific vertical.
Step two: Attract every single small business and at least one of their employees. Want your business to appear on Google Maps, Google Local, et al., so that you can tell your prospective customers where you are, what you sell, and when you are open? Yup, you guessed it—you need a Google Plus Local Business page now. But again, Google isn’t forcing your hand, it’s adding value. Reviews, hours, pics, videos, local search—all housed in one place. And this account must be managed by a real person with a real Google Plus personal account. Now you have all small businesses as well as a new person in each business using Google Plus. See where I’m going with this?
Step three: Convince you, because all of those other things that you already love get better. Maybe you’re addicted to that new augmented reality game Ingress. Maybe your Google Plus profile makes it way easier to win. Or maybe you want better music, movie, or book recommendations—look no further than Google Plus. Want to find a community of skiers or chefs or race car drivers with a flick of the wrist? Or perhaps that hilarious video about that thing that you once emailed to a friend but can’t quite remember enough about it to find again? When you have Google Plus, those communities and that video just appear when you search for your best guess.
The point is, once Google Plus has every blogger, every small business, lots of gamers, lots of YouTubers, etc., actively using the product, they will continue to use all that new data to make even more of their products more awesome.
I know. You are still in the "no freaking way am I joining another social network" mode. But one day soon you will wake up and find out about that one little thing and it goes something like this:
Your buddy, "Hey have you heard about this one little thing?"
You: "Oh. My. God. That’s Awesome. That’s so Awesome. How do I get that?"
Your buddy: "Oh, you need to have a Google Plus Profile or it doesn’t work."
I’ll see you around—on Google Plus.
—Dave Llorens is a two-time entrepreneur currently running One Block Off the Grid. If you are interested in starting a business, circle him on Google+ or join his business community, The MBA of Hard Knocks.
[Image: Flickr user Laura Thorne]