Why Google+ failed, a product view

vic-gundotra-googleToday is Google+’s fifth anniversary. By most measures, despite massive investments, it was an epic failure.

I’ve been following all of Google’s attempts at social. I knew Buzz, Wave and Google+ weren’t going to work. You can watch me say so in this Bloomberg clip, where I went on against Robert Scoble.

Here are some of the reasons:

A hard line between product and marketing

I’ve talked to Googlers at almost all levels, including several at the VP and SVP level. Some of my closest friends work at Google. What stands out to me is that there is a hard line between product and marketing. Engineers build something and then marketing goes and figures out how to market it.

In the online world — and especially in social — this is a relic and counterproductive. Marketing has to be baked into the product and vice versa.

This is something that Facebook understands at its core. But it’s something that seems to be lost at Google.

People tagging is one of the smartest things Facebook (or any company) has ever done for distribution. (See https://blog.agrawals.org/2007/10/10/the-power-of-the-social-graph/) Is this a product idea? A marketing idea? Yes. Yes. It’s both. And the only way you come up with something like this is having people from a lot of disciplines involved in the product.

Part of Google’s challenge is that it hasn’t had to do a lot of marketing. Its key products — search, mail, maps — have been so much better than the competition that people naturally loved them.

Google did great with Google+,  if you consider traditional marketing. The Google+ ad below was beautifully executed. It should have won an award. But it didn’t move the needle, because that’s not how consumers “buy” social products. (Incidentally, the ads that agencies love — that show off their creativity and win awards — are rarely the ones that are effective.)

Google+’s botched invite process

An invite process is key to attracting users, but it is also important for engagement.

This was the flow when Google+ launched:
  • Rakesh invites Sundar.
  • Sundar accepts invite.
  • Sundar sees nothing, leaves.
  • Rakesh sees nothing, leaves.

(This was the initial flow. It’s possible that the team changed it weeks or months later. I did my testing at launch.)

This is what the flow should have been:
  • Rakesh invites Sundar.
  • Sundar accepts invite.
  • Sundar is automatically connected to Rakesh. (He accepted the invite, it’s logical to connect them.)
  • Rakesh gets an email saying “Sundar has joined Google+. Say hi to him!”
  • Rakesh (who is likely lapsed because of cold-start problem), now has a reason to go back to Google+.
  • Rakesh says “Hi” to Sundar on Google+.
  • Sundar gets an email that says Rakesh has responded on Google+.
  • Rinse, repeat.

Google could also have (with permission) scanned my email contacts and suggested groups like “close friends,” “business contacts,” “family,” “college,” etc. I’d be much more likely to invite close friends than bulk spam everyone I’ve ever interacted with. (a la LinkedIn.)

The Wave invite process was similarly botched. Here was a product designed for groups, but the invite process was such that I couldn’t guarantee my whole group would get in on it.

An emphasis on technology, even when it isn’t needed or is antisocial

In the Google Wave demos, there was a lot of emphasis on the real-time nature of the platform. Changes happened instantly! You could enter a few characters and everyone would see it right away. It seemed that the people who worked on it were very proud of their technical achievement.

It may have been a technical achievement, but it’s not a great social experience. I wouldn’t want you watching letter by letter as I wrote this blog post. It takes some time to form cogent thoughts. I edit and re-edit myself. From the producer side, I don’t want that level of detail exposed. (Especially if I sucked at spelling or typed really slowly.) As a consumer, you don’t really want to sit around and wait for me to type.

Showing instant updates in this context is a bug, not a feature. IM clients don’t show you letter by letter for this exact reason. If we’re showing stock quotes, obviously it makes sense.

Circles was another feature that was technically a differentiator, but socially irrelevant. (And, truly, it wasn’t a differentiator. Facebook had similar functionality, but buried it.) Unlike engineers, most people aren’t highly organized. They don’t group their friends into lists. They don’t actively manage their lists. They don’t want to constantly worry about privacy. Consumers want to make the least effort possible to use a product. Google+ was the opposite of that.

Even the terminology was geeky. +1 means nothing to a normal consumer. I know what it means because I used to participate in Usenet forums. But that’s not common.

Google Photos is exactly on the right track with this. The team understands that people are lazy. Using Google’s machine vision technology to make it easier to find pictures solves a tremendous challenge for people. I love showing friends pictures of kids from birth to now. They can watch kids grow up just by using the scroll bar. Machine vision is also much, much harder for Facebook and Apple to do.

The kitchen sink and the complicated sell

Google tends to have a lot of feature bloat in its social products. They might be great products, but they are hard to explain to people.

The recent social successes have had simple value propositions:

  • Instagram – share photos w/filters
  • Snapchat – share disappearing photos
  • WhatsApp – free global text messaging (way around ridiculous fees for SMS)

You’ll notice Twitter isn’t on the list. It has failed to reach the masses despite billions in free media. There’s no simple value prop.

I have the same problem. I’ve worked in journalism, publishing, telecom, search, local, automotive, payments. I have cross-discipline experience: I’ve done journalism, engineering management, product management, market research, biz dev, UX, corp dev, angel investing and marketing. A typical recruiter (including Google recruiters) looks at all that and says, “Why would I look at this person?”

But sit down with me for 45 minutes and learn how I work and the depth of my thought processes and the usual reaction is, “Why haven’t we hired this person?”

Google doesn’t have 45 minutes — or even 45 seconds to make the pitch to consumers.

Outlook for Allo

I watched the keynote and Allo falls into the same bucket of a complicated sell. Why is a user going to adopt this? Is it for:

  • Tons of emojis. (Piece of cake to emulate.)
  • To play command line games? Zork 2016 (Piece of cake to emulate.)
  • Google Assistant.
  • whisper SHOUT. (Piece of cake to emulate. iOS 10 includes this.)

Better to pick one thing and knock that out of the ballpark. You aren’t going to win FB Messenger users over with emoji. Given Google and Facebook’s relative strengths and weaknesses, I’d bet it all on Google Assistant. Another plus: It adds virality to Google’s other products.

The other key challenge for Allo will be distribution.

WhatsApp built its base outside the U.S. The primary reason people adopted it initially was to avoid paying the exorbitant cross-border SMS and MMS fees. There was an easy, compelling reason to switch.

Facebook Messenger used its insane time-on-site and hundreds of millions of users to build its user base. They had a massive (and personal) friend graph to work with.

So far, I haven’t seen anything from Google about how it’s going to attract users.

Recommendations for product folks and managers

  • Build interdisciplinary teams. The best products come from a team that understands various facets of consumer experience.
  •  Build growth mechanisms within the product experience.
  •  Focus on 1 or 2 easy-to-understand pitches.
  • With more fully featured products, those can be exposed contextually, as people become accustomed to the product. e.g. when Facebook started its move into mobile, they didn’t do big interstitials about mobile. They put a little phone icon next to statuses that were posted from mobile. This subtly introduced the mobile product without hitting people over the head.

Have questions on building products? Hit me up on Twitter at @rakeshlobster or stay tuned for my office hours.