When Google launched its Google+ social network just over four years ago, it was an ambitious project. Google+ was an attempt to re-invent how people use the Internet. As one columnist eloquently put it, Google+ wasn't Google's version of Facebook (as everyone assumed); it was Google's version of Google.
The vision was to integrate most Google services into Google+. Google+ was supposed to be an identity platform, a photo and video platform, a news discovery site, a hotel and restaurant guide and the mother of all messaging and video-chat platforms. Oh, and it was a social network, too.
That Google+ vision has been largely realized -- not by Google, but by Facebook.
Since Google+ launched, Facebook copied its long-form posts, its circle-like follower system, its flexible connection model (both friend and follower), its photo editing features and many other components of the Google+ vision. Facebook is being turned into a video site based mainly on YouTube, just like Google+ was supposed to be. And Facebook has made moves to transform its social networking site into a news discovery site (Google+ launched with a news discovery feature called Sparks but removed it a year after launch). Facebook this month even went so far as to add the ability to search posts (although Facebook's post search feature doesn't work as well as Google's).
When Google+ launched, Facebook had a massive head start on users, and it has extended that lead by an unknown but probably massive degree. Facebook probably has more than a billion more active users than Google+ does, although Google as a company may have more users than Facebook as a company does (especially if you add the Android user numbers to Search, YouTube, Google+, Gmail and all the rest).
Still, the choice between Google+ and Facebook has always been this: Do you want a better social network that hardly anyone you personally know uses, or do you want an inferior site that absolutely everyone you know uses?
People do social networking mostly to maintain and enhance relationships, so Facebook may always be the biggest social network. Facebook is the telephone system of our era. You have to have a phone number, and it doesn't matter how much you like your phone company.
The grand irony is that while Facebook has been totally killing it with the Google+ vision, the Google+ vision was killing Google+ -- at least from a PR standpoint. It turns out that users can accept a social networking company turning one product into many, but they can't accept the forcing of many products into one.
Google's forced integration of everything with Google+ failed. So in the past year, the company has been "dis-integrating" Google+. The requirement to have a Google+ account for other Google services has been relaxed. Photos and Hangouts have been spun out as separate products. The Real Names policy has been canceled.
Last week, the new vision for Google+ was revealed.
Understanding the new Google+
Google is slowly rolling out a completely revamped Google+ for both desktop browsers and mobile apps.
For starters, the new version of Google+ is much faster. Google completely replaced the underlying code, embracing a "responsive design" approach that enables one implementation across all platforms.
In addition to the improvement in page performance, the Google+ user interface has been improved and made more discoverable, consistent and rational across platforms.
The other big change is a renewed emphasis on Communities and Collections over streams.
On the old Google+, everything was a search result. For example, viewing your "Family" circle was just a search result saying: "Show me all posts by people on this list in reverse chronological order." Actual searches (as in using the search box) were indistinguishable in concept from any other view. Everything you did in Google+ was a stream resulting from either a manual or an automated search.
Later, Google added Communities and Collections. Communities are like Reddit. A user creates a place to talk about a specific -- often very specific -- topic. Anyone who joins that community can post on that topic, and each Community can have multiple moderators.
Collections are like Pinterest: Each user says "Here are the categories of interests I have," and followers can follow any or all of them as you would boards on Pinterest.
Four aspects of Google+ have been successful. First, its cloud-based photo management and editing tools were a big hit. Google spun those out as Google Photos, which is now social-network-agnostic and very popular.
Second, Google's video Hangouts were great. The company spun out the Hangouts product as a separate offering and now even enables people to use Hangouts without a Google password. Hangouts is less successful as a messaging platform overall, but its multi-user video chat feature is still the best experience available.
Finally, Communities and Collections were also successes, and they are now the central focus of the new Google+, while Circles are de-emphasized.
You can re-emphasize Circles by navigating to Settings and then Advanced Settings, and then throwing the switch on "Enable circle stream in navigation." This will add a new "Circle Streams" button to your left navigation bar. Pressing it will show your top 10 Circles. You can see all your Circles at any time by clicking on People, then choosing the "Following" tab.
The new emphasis on Communities and Collections means that instead of being an alternative to Facebook, Google+ is now an alternative to Reddit and Pinterest.
People either like or dislike any given social network. People who want to explore their passions might prefer either Reddit or Google+ Communities. Reddit's interface is a throwback to the 90s, and (like Craigslist) it's still clinging to the design-free, text-only model. Culturally, Reddit is more in tune with the Internet's Zeitgeist, while Google+ Communities are more insular. Reddit's upvoting system may improve the discovery of new stuff, while Google+ is vastly superior for conversations and discussions with other users.
Google+ Collections are pretty and richly visual like Pinterest. In general, Pinterest is more materialistic than Google+. The content is more about shopping and products, and it contains ads and "Buyable Pins." Google+ is far better than Pinterest for how-to and DIY-type content and still has zero ads. Google+ skews male, while something north of 70% of Pinterest users are female.
It's also worth noting that the new Google+ makes the social network better for new, casual users and worse for experienced, active ones.
One big change is the automation of comment flagging. Google used to flag potential problem comments and place them in a secure area where only the person who made the post could see them. From there, they could be deleted or restored. Now, Google does this automatically without giving post owners the ability to override the system. So now I see that about 10% of the good, constructive comments made on my post are flagged as spam and I can't do anything about it. This change even affects Communities, where community moderators have been sidelined by a flawed automation system. For new users, however, it's all much easier because there's no comment moderation to worry about (and unlike early adopters, they won't have to unlearn the old system as they adapt to the new changes).
I conducted an informal poll and found that the new Google+ redesign is extremely polarizing: Users either love it or hate it.
Who uses Google+?
Over the past few years, Google+ has developed an interesting user base. For starters, hardcore Google and Android fans love the place, and they are heavily represented. Google employees and executives use it heavily, and Google makes many official announcements on the site.
There is also a long list of enthusiast categories, from beer brewing to parkour, where superfans are active users in both Communities and on people's individual posts.
Then, in the past year, there has been a massive influx of people who appear to be non-English speakers who, for whatever reason, don't engage in the same way. Any post with a significant number of comments will attract a large number of people who don't care about the post. They show up to make friends, flirt or try to get other users to contact them. Anecdotally, it seems now that one out of every 30 comments is "Hi."
Google+ is growing faster now than it did in its first three years. I just did the math and found that my own follower count has grown by an average of 3,242 new followers per day in the past year. Obviously, this is a dizzying rate of growth (I'll hit 5 million followers by the end of the month). But the engagement on my posts isn't growing at the same rate. It appears that Google+ is growing fast; but that growth is perhaps more significantly driven by people who use it as a chat room than it is by people who use it as a place to share interests.
Overall, it's clear to me that the new Google+ is still by far the best place to connect with people who share your interests, and to have conversations about those interests in an uncluttered, ad-free space.
The redesign is really the final step in a yearlong pivot that transformed Google+ from a bloated and slow everything social network into a sleek, fast and more streamlined site that's really good at one thing -- giving superfans, enthusiasts and nerds a great place to geek out together on whatever passions they share.