Part of my job as a PR consultant is to monitor the latest trends in social media. At times, this as exhausting, as platforms and functionalities change quickly.
(Example: “Is Periscope vs. Meerkat still a thing?” It turns out, no – in case you missed it, Meerkat CEO Ben Rubin announced last week that the platform would stop live-streaming video, conceding it could not compete with Periscope or Facebook Live.)
I. Chris Poole Joins Google
This week’s big news in social media is Google’s surprise hiring of Chris Poole, the founder of 4chan.
4chan, the image-based online bulletin board, gained fame as much for its controversy as its content. With an emphasis on anonymity and little censorship, it’s (rightfully) been criticized over the years as a haven of un-PC hatred.
The site’s legacy includes the birth of Rickrolling, lolcats, and its role as a central hub of the celebrity nude photos posted online following an infamous phone-hacking scandal a few years ago.
Still, Chris Poole is a proven founder and represents a key strategic hire for Google.
At this point we don’t know exactly what Poole will be doing for Google; we know only that he will report directly to Bradley Horowitz, VP of streams, photos and sharing (i.e., what used to be Google+).
II. Why Google+ Failed
Speaking of, let’s talk about Google+, and why it failed.
I admit it. I was wrong.
I believed the hype about Google+, the search giant’s biggest entry into social media five years ago that was billed and marketed as a potential “Facebook-killer.”
I believed that Google could leverage its track record and brand to improve on the user experience of Facebook, particularly on mobile – where that platform was then sputtering.
This ties into what I’ve learned about the second-mover advantage in business, and goes a long way towards explaining how Facebook was able to quickly improve upon and overtake earlier social media platforms like Friendster and Myspace.
In educating myself about Google+ I even read What the Plus!, Guy Kawasaki’s 200-page propaganda piece for the platform. “My prediction is that Google+ will not only tip, but it will exceed Facebook and Twitter.” writes Kawasaki in his preface.
He was wrong. I was wrong. So what, precisely, went wrong?
1) Botched Roll-out via exclusive invitations
As pointed out by Mashable, exclusive invitations work to build buzz for a brand new company trying to drive awareness, but are not as useful for established brands.
This is particularly true with social networks, where network effects are key. Because social networks are only useful if you can quickly and easily find your friends there, fast exponential growth is required. Google erred here in not making it easier for folks to join Google+ faster.
2) Forced YouTube sign-ins
The best goods and services grow organically, ideally via word of mouth. In 2013, Google blundered when it tied YouTube to Google+, requiring users to sign in with a Google+ ID just to comment on videos.
3) Outside its core competency
A large takeaway here is simply that Google has shown social networks to be outside its core competency, which remains search.
Social will never be that for which Google is primarily known. In contrast, social networking is the primary mission of Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat.
While Google’s recent pivot to Alphabet is an effort to expand its reputation beyond mere search, it will likely take years for its public reputation to catch up.
4) Too similar
The aforementioned Mashable article quotes several Google employees who were shocked to discover that Google+’s ultimate interface looked so much like Facebook’s. Without much to distinguish it, Google+ seemed like an inferior copycat from the jump.
5) Lack of customer need
Which brings us to this. Customers already had Facebook, and Google+ didn’t offer enough new or different to spur them to add yet another social channel.
While the same argument could be made that Facebook offered little new relative to Friendster or MySpace back in 2004, by initially limiting its market to college students, it was seen as a better, hipper alternative. Without such differentiation, Google+ just seemed superfluous, and particularly unnecessary when everyone’s already on Facebook.
III. What’s Next
While Google+ never gained the critical mass to come close to replacing Facebook as a necessary social network, it has a few uses.
First, SEO value – Google still ranks Google+ posts highly in its search results (pro tip: I’ve cross-posted each of my blog posts to Google+. You should too.).
Second, Google Hang-outs. These are actually useful for cheap (read: free) real-time video conference calls and our PR clients tend to love them.
Still, the overwhelming question this week now that Google’s brought Chris Poole into the fold is: Can he produce?
Can he build the same sort of online community around Google that he did so successfully at 4chan?
Only time will tell…