OPINION: Google this week finally put an end to two of its “game-changing” online platforms. Inbox and Google+ are both officially dead.
The impact that Inbox and Google+ had on the internet are very different. Inbox served a purpose and positively impacted the way we all – or at least some of us – use email.
Google+ on the other hand. Well. It got off to a bright start, then died a very slow death.
Let’s start with Inbox. Email is a weird technology. No-one likes it. It’s inefficient. Lawless. Impossible to stay on top of. And yet somehow, it won’t die.
Brands have been trying to kill or fix our broken relationship with email for over a decade. Inbox, launched in 2014, was Google’s attempt. And despite shutting down this week, it achieved a lot.
Inbox’s integration of AI, suggested quick replies, the ability to snooze and set reminders are all innovations that started life in Inbox. They now find a new home in Gmail proper. So there’s no need to get to upset about the closure of Inbox.
Overall, Inbox was a solid effort by Google and is something we can look back on fondly.
Google+ is totally different.
It arrived with a huge amount of fanfare in 2011. And in a lot of people’s opinion, this was going to be the social media platform that took on Facebook.
Google was investing in a social media platform after all; of course, it was going to be massive.
Apart from when it wasn’t. Google+ was a social media platform that was kept on a life support machine for seven years too long. Despite its promising start.
The first thing we need to remember about Google+ was that it solved a clear problem.
Google’s mantra at the time “we believe online sharing is broken” was accurate. And maybe it still is.
Google+ preyed on the difficulties Facebook users faced at the time. Facebook was, and still is, a share-to-all kind of platform.
This is an obvious problem. We all have different groups of friends on Facebook. A picture of a baby is perhaps interesting to family members, but your co-workers probably don’t want to see the post at the top of their news feed.
Google+ solved this with “Circles”. This feature offered users an elegant way to share posts with specific audiences.
Baby pictures could and should be shared with Google+ connections in your Family Circle while an interesting article for work could be shared in your Work Circle.
The next problem is solved was kind of related to Circles. Google Identified that a significant problem with Facebook and Twitter was that there was little control over what posts users saw in their feeds.
“Sparks” was Google+’s fix for this. With Sparks, users could filter what they saw based on categories and interested.
So far, so good. Right?
There’s more. Next, Google+ introduced Hangouts. This was like Skype (back then) on steroids. And again it solved problems that very much existed at the time.
It allowed Google+ users to chat, either via text, audio, or video, in groups or one-on-one.
There was a killer feature too. Group video chats would automatically display the video stream of whoever was speaking at the time. The feature that we all take for granted in work conference calls was brought to us by Google+.
All these features helped them grow Google+. It breezed past the 10 million user mark within two weeks. By the time it was a month old it had surpassed 25 million. And within a year it had 900 million sign-ups.
So what went wrong?
A few things. The most obvious mistake it made was banning any user who didn’t use a real name — this alienated legitimate privacy-conscious users from using pseudonyms or nicknames.
Google didn’t stop there either. Any Google+ user that wasn’t using a real name had their associated Gmail, Documents, Calendar accounts shut down too.
Google later admitted this was probably a mistake.
That wasn’t Google+’s only bump. It was a bit too heavy-handed when it swiftly banned all Google+ business profiles.
Google admitted this was probably a mistake too.
Mistakes kept happening. Spam was a significant issue for the platform and remained a problem, that some argue, it never resolved.
But it wasn’t these individual mistakes that made Google+ fail. It failed, I think, because it was rolled out too far, too wide and too quickly.
Google integrated Google+ everywhere and anywhere. It even popped up in Google’s search engine.
In truth, Google+ was dead within 18 months of launching. It was all over the internet. And because no one was using it, it soon blended in, ultimately becoming the unnoticed and unloved background to the internet.
It could have all been so different.
Writing about Google+ has made me realise how close it was to become a success. Google+ correctly identified several major problems with social media.
It had the clout and user numbers to create something that could have culturally changed how we interact with the internet today.
Are we better as a society thanks to Google+’s failure and Facebook’s dominance? Probably not.