Monday, August 10, 2015

BURY YOUR HEAD INTO SAND

You can BURY YOUR HEAD INTO SAND all you want - but that isn't going to change the reality that they're four letter words.

+Mark Traphagen has written an excellent article about the past, present, and future of Google+ over on Marketing Land. In it, he makes some compelling arguments about where Google+ is going. While the article is an important read, I think he ignores some of Plus' history that is important to understanding where it is now. And while he paints an interesting future for Google+, I have to wonder if he's deliberately ignoring some serious questions that need to be answered if there will be a Plus in our future.

And make no mistake - I'm still a big fan of Google+, hope it has a future, and think it just might if they play their cards right. But I'm not going to pretend it doesn't have major challenges to address first.


The Past

Mark does a good job in examining the past of Google+ under the guidance of Vic Gundotra. But I think he falls short in two areas in his examination:

  1. Google+ started with a particularly odd view of "identity management" that has caused problems that resonate today in the guise of the Google+ Profile.
  2. The notion of helping people connect around their interests has always been a part of Google+, although one fraught with problems from the beginning. Since this is where Google+ seems to have pivoted itself, it is important to understand why this was such a problem.

Identity Management

It only took a few days before the first negative reactions to the Google+ Profile (and accompanying policy) reared their heads. People who were used to posting pseudonymously online were going to have to use their "common name", which was often interpreted as their "real name". You would need to enter a birthday, even if it wasn't visible. Companies couldn't create accounts at all (since they had neither names nor birthdays).  This immediately alienated both early adopters and companies. People were shocked to find out that their GMail names were suddenly changed without notice. Others were confused - if they broke the Google+ rules, would their gmail and calendars be locked out?

These were no idle concerns. People who had already established identities on the Internet, through GMail, and with other Google products were worried about losing those identities because they were forced to adopt a "new" identity.

On the Google side - it wasn't clear why this was being forced, and time has borne out many of those initial concerns. Having a "real name" never contributed to improved user identity and it never fixed the problem with trolls. Companies eventually got their equivalent to Profiles with Pages, but the difference between the two was slight, and it was quite a bit longer before Pages became easily used. (The confusion was compounded when there were also Local+ Pages, which were almost, but not quite, like other Pages.)

For those paying attention, the half-hearted integration of Blogger with Plus was a sign of upcoming problems - Blogger profiles being turned into Google+ profiles caused a small uproar. The uproar was much much bigger when they did the same with YouTube. So much bigger that the policy was eventually reversed, leading to the mantra of dis-integration with Google+. But the problem with YouTube wasn't largely with the integration - it was with the confused, complex, and generally useless Google+ Profile.

But why does all this matter going forward? Because the Profile is left as one of the core components. This component which caused so much harm to Google+ will remain its legacy.

Interest Graph and Discovery

Google+ launched around three main components: Circles, Hangouts, and Sparks. Sparks seemed like a good idea - you could specify topics you were interested in, and the content would be delivered to you. You can then share your discoveries with others. Google, in turn, got an explicit set of things you were interested in. Sparks, however, lacked one crucial aspect - it wasn't integrated in the circle delivery system. So if you wanted to see what Sparks had recently uncovered on a topic - you had to go click on that topic. It was a search bookmark, and when Sparks was eliminated, that was essentially what it was replaced with. This would not be the last time that Google+ would make the mistake that people would go visit content instead of having content delivered to them.

Notice something missing from that list of features in Google+? If you said search, you'd be right - it was nowhere to be found in the early releases. This confused people who thought of Google as a search company and openly wondered how people were going to connect with other people or topics they might be interested in. I think it is still a miracle we somehow found each other. The situation was remedied, but the legacy of this remains.

The lack of search and the resistance to Google+ due to the draconain Profile policy meant that many people did have problems finding each other. Thus was born the Suggested User List (SUL), which gave new users lists of people and companies they could follow based on their interest. While this was an interesting attempt at discovery, it was a solution that didn't scale. Having some Googlers maintain, on a country-by-country level, lists of accounts with (hopefully) great content meant that lots of content was never found, that people who were discovered were overburdened by the mass of people following them, and that the long tail of interests were lost.

The SUL eventually lead to cards with suggested users, pages, and (eventually) communities and collections. Google has the statistics, of course, but I'm not aware of many connections that were made using this system. The biggest reason was that the suggestions were made on what seemed to be only the flimsiest of reasons - usually that there was some connection via a person you had in your circles. It didn't matter how relevant the connection was or the type of connection - there was a connection. (This was a bigger problem with how Google and Google+ used Circles... or didn't use circles... but thats probably a ramble for another time.)

Again - why does all this history matter?  Because it shows that Google+ has tried all along to address the interest graph. And yet it took tools like Google Now to actually put it to good use. If, as Mark ponders, the new Google+ will be adding advanced AI to help get a user content - that will be great... but this will be just another step in a long line of attempts to do exactly that.


The Present

Mark's discussion about the Besbris term is fairly sound. There are some interesting events that took place during this period (the abolition of the "real name" policy and the YouTube integration), but these could be chalked up to things that were started under Vic Gundotra. The departure of Chee Chew as head of the Hangout team was an interesting event as well that plays into the rest of Mark's narrative.

Mark made a big deal out of Sundar Pichai's statements about the dis-integration of Hangouts, Photos, and the Stream. In fact, there was a lot of attention paid to these statements at the time and how they were foreshadowing the most recent set of events. Many of us, however, were somewhat surprised by the level of attention and surprise that these statements brought about- to those paying attention, Hangouts and Photos were always slightly separate products from the beginning, having their own Community Managers in addition to the overall Google+ CM.

In fact, Photos was largely touted as "PicasaWeb 2.0" when it first came out, and as it swallowed (and then spit out) PicNik. It kept that separate life, to some extent - so much that even with the latest incarnation, it still relies on the PicasaWeb album structure for some features. (So is this PicasaWeb 3.0 or 2.0 take two?) And while it had (and needed!) a social component it had a slightly different set of permissioning rules than Google+ did. Even with the dis-integration, Google+ Photos seems to have kept the social component of Photos, and statements from the head of Photos has suggested that this won't change.

Hangouts is a better example. At I/O 2013, Google Talk got a rebranding to Hangouts. No longer did Hangouts just refer to the video portion, it now was all the real-time communication methods. Over the following years, Hangouts also swallowed much of Voice. Hangout Text Chat didn't require the Google+ Profile, and eventually that requirement was even lifted for Hangout Video Chats (although some features do still require the Profile albatross for no obvious reason). In reality - Hangouts was barely integrated in the first place, so removing it is somewhat easier. If anything, the dis-integration with Streams has also served to worsen both Hangouts and Streams - one common complaint is that it isn't easy to see when your friends are hanging out anymore... a feature that is touted as a major feature in both Periscope and Meerkat.

Other things were never really integrated into Google+ in any significant way. Google Drive, for example, has always had a very strange relationship with Plus. Although documents could be shared to the stream early on, and provided some really good integration, it never adopted the Google+ Profile or Circles as the core of its permissioning system. Although Google+ Photos started getting some tie-in to Drive, which was enhanced as part of the split into Google Photos, there continues to be a lot of confusion about the relationship between Drive and Photos.

What does this mean about the future of integration and dis-integration? Hard to tell. But we do see that Google continues to integrate its products - recent changes to Maps have incorporated the new Photos, for example. But it sounds like Google+ (or, more significantly, the Google+ Profile) will be the part that is isolated.


The Future

What does this mean for what's coming next? I think Mark does a good job at his analysis... and his forecast of increased and improved AI is an intriguing one that I look forward to. He makes it clear how a future Google+ will benefit Google, and how Marketers will benefit from it as well. There is only one thing missing.

How it will benefit the people expected to use the system.

Compelling Reason?

Put another way (that Mark does hint at): Many people have been saying that Google+ needed a "compelling reason" to get people to use it. It failed to do so, on the whole, in the past. What is it saying that compelling reason is now?

In announcing the pivot of Google+, and in the foreshadowing leading up to this formal pivot, Bradley Horrowitz said the compelling reason would be bringing people with a "common interest" together through Communities, Collections, and enhancements that would be coming down the road.

But is this a compelling enough reason? As I illustrated above, Google+ had been trying to do this for four years. This isn't a new mission - it is the old mission, brought into laser-like focus, enhanced with new technologies, but with most of the other parts of the old mission cast off or pushed to an arm's length away.

I'm just not sure it is compelling enough at the moment. It isn't that difficult to find others with a common interest these days if you go looking for it. Google Search will provide any number of sites that meet your requirements. Look at some of them enough, and Google Now will tell you when there are updates to the site and when other sites meeting those interests appear. There are tons of forums out there organized around specific video games, food and dietary practices, software development, gardening, photography, and many other subjects. Facebook Groups provides much the same features that Google Communities do, for that matter.

In fact, there is only one thing that Google+ has that none of the others do. The Google+ Profile.

The Albatross

This is the same Google+ Profile which was at the heart of every failed integration with Google+. And while it has cast off the worst trappings of the Real Name policy, it still maintains certain requirements (such as a birthday) that do not provide significant benefits to the owner of the Profile and continues to make it more difficult to simply sign up for Google+. 

Compare, for example, how one signs up to participate in a Google Groups discussions vs a Google+ Community. Both of them can have strict access controls, but Google Groups is a much faster sign up, requiring less information up front, while still allowing you to tailor a number of things about the content delivery. Groups even has a number of other benefits that Communities have lacked for a few years now (including some basic analytics tools).

For that matter, Google+ still maintains a somewhat strict name policy - browse the Google+ Help community, and one of the biggest questions is how the person can change their name since they have changed it "too many times".

And what does the user get for signing up for Google+? They get forced into a single name. And what is so bad about this? Well... it depends what sorts of "common interests" you're looking for. Looking for people to talk about your favorite video games? You might want to use your screen name in the corresponding forum. Business or education? A more formal name, probably, and possibly with your title attached fairly clearly. Fraternal organization? The nickname you use amongst your friends. One name does not fit every situation, and requiring a different Google+ Profile (and thus a different Google account) for each one will discourage this sort of flexible use.

The "Solution"

So... if I don't think the interest graph will be the saving grace of Google+, and I'm concerned about the continued use of the Google+ Profile even inside Google+, what do I think the future is (or should be)?

I think it is going to depend on several factors:
  • Bradley Horrowitz and his team may truly have some awesome features coming for Communities, Collections, and the Stream in general. But they will have to be awesome features - what exists right now is far from compelling. There is nothing that makes Communities, for example, stand out as better (or even nearly as good) as Google Groups, Facebook Groups, or traditional Forums.
  • When those features come out, it will need to be crystal clear what is so compelling about them - Collections, for example, utterly failed to do so, and the first commercials for them were comedic in how bad they were.
  • Finally, the lingering issues with the problems of the Google+ Profile need to be resolved. Ideally, one shouldn't need a Google+ Profile to use Google+ any more than one needs a Google Groups profile to use Google Groups. (There probably is something profile-like... but it doesn't get in the way of using Groups.)

What do I think can be done (and should be done quickly) to make Google+ a stand-out tool for communicating with like-minded people? My list of features tend to swirl around integration, rather than dis-integration, so I'm not entirely sure. But here are some things that I would want to see and that I think would make Google+ stand out from other:

  • Abolish and fix the profile. I should be able to view how other people (who are following me, following a Collection, or in a Community with me) should see my name with much better granularity. I should be able to use different names in different situations and Communities. This isn't for privacy purposes - this is just to better reflect the nature and culture of each group. (And if you think this is difficult - consider that Google Groups does this now.)
  • Better stream control. Many of the following suggestions are subsets of this, but in general, the Google+ stream controls need improvement. One of the bigger complaints is that stuff shows up in the stream that doesn't align with either the chronological ordering that would make sense, or with the user's true interests. Google+ has improved upon this over the years, but it remains a problem.
  • Power to the Circles. Circles were one of the major features when Google+ rolled out, but they are largely seen as complex and confusing. Part of this is because of the UI for them is scattered around Google+. If you want to change the volume coming from a circle, you don't go to the Circle - you go to the Stream and then narrow based on the circle. Other things about Circles are located in Settings. Putting them where they belong, in the Circle control itself, would go a long way to making them easier to use.
  • Improve Community Categories. Communities have the ability to let people post in a sub-forum in the Community called a Category. This is great, but you can't subscribe to just a Category - you either get the entire Community in your stream, or you ignore it and visit the Community and Categories that you want manually. But not everyone needs, or wants, to follow every Category in a Community, and there has to be easier ways to turn this off or lower the volume. (And it might make some sense if some features from popular forums are adopted as well - like Categories that are for announcements from the moderators only.)
  • Integrate other Google+ features into Collections. Most notably +1s. Right now, making your +1s visible to others is handled as a special case that you can turn on or off... but that your followers have no real control over. Making all your +1s a Collection solves three issues: (1) You can find your +1s again later - a feature that has been requested for four years. (2) Your followers can choose to not follow your +1s, but still follow you and your more explicit shares. (3) It makes the interface more consistent.
  • Give Communities an API. It is ridiculous that there is no API for community owners to do something simple like get the list of members. Nevermind even basic features like styling communities beyond a cover photo or having the Community be part of an outside website (both for formatting and authorization). Google Groups can be used to permit people to apps on Google Play - why can't Communities?
  • Give Collections an API. One of the argument about Google+ not having an API was that past experience with Buzz indicated that it created a lot of poor quality content that spammed people, and the Facebook experience also suggested that spam and "frictionless sharing" of junk was an issue. But what if there was a way for people to opt into seeing that if they wished it? That's exactly what Collections provides today, so giving it an API for other applications to integrate with would be a perfect match.
  • Integration with Google Drive and Google Calendar for Communities. Real-world communities use calendars. They share documents. They collaborate. 

It is easy for me to armchair program these features, of course. But these are just a small sample of a few things that I think Google+ can, and should, deliver to offer real value to their users and to be real distinctions between the many other offerings that are out there.


When I first joined Google+, I immediately saw the potential it had as the spine of a future Google suite of products. It is no longer that spine. But with it gone, I also no longer see the potential.

Bradley Horrowitz and his team will have to sell me on that potential again. They need to answer the questions about what new features they can bring to the product, how dis-integration is actually good for a social stream, what can be done about the issues surrounding the Google+ Profile, and... let's be blunt... why anyone would want to use Google+ at all?

There are answers. I know there are. I know they're not easy answers. But in order to answer them, we have to stop pretending to be ostriches who deny the questions even exist.