Is Google+ The Right Community? You be the Judge

Stop the presses, Google+ has updated! Don’t scoff people, this is big news!

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The new Google+ layout is surprisingly excellent.

For those of you who might not remember all too clearly, Google+ is that social network Google launched a few years ago. It was meant to be a Facebook killer like Facebook was a Myspace killer, but that never really turned out the way we were all expecting. Facebook is more popular than ever while Google+ plus has limped along with an unwilling user base and confuseds goals. Google might have gone into the whole social media game with the intent of bringing Facebook crashing back to earth, but in the end the big blue F remained defiant in the face of competition.

But why didn’t we all flock to Google’s widespread arms? After all, everyone uses Google for just about everything else, why not make the monopoly absolute? People didn’t like the pushy way Google decided to implement Plus, for a start. Forcing the whole Google community to adopt the new platform, and crippling much loved services like the YouTube comment section in the process won them no new fans. On the surface Google+ plus was a success as it had a lot of members, but most of those people only joined because they were forced to, and never used the service they had signed up for.

It wasn’t the first time that Google had dipped its toe into the social media game either. It tried to beat Facebook before the other had even got started with Orkut, which promptly fell on its face. It tried again with Reader, Wave and Buzz, whose success can be summed up the fact that none of you reading this have any idea what they were. So far, Google+ has suffered a similar fate.

You could be forgiven for thinking that it’s is dead. Social media is an all or nothing game: Google went all in and they came out with nothing.

Or Did They?

Google+ isn’t the next Facebook, that’s for sure. If in the five years since its release it’s failed to generate any meaningful market share, then that’s not likely to change as it ages and falls out of people’s memories. in the end, Plus wasn’t a unique or good enough product to steal away Facebook’s user base. Google rushed into producing Plus without considering whether it brought anything new to the market or provided a compelling reason for users to switch. Why would people leave their established profile on Facebook for an unproven one on Google+ where none of their friends were? Google+ didn’t provide, and users didn’t switch.

But things might not be all doom and gloom. Because it turns out the saving grace of Google might not be the features that make it like Facebook, but instead the features that make it unlike Facebook. Google has finally realised that they’re not going to bring down Facebook by beating the giant at its own game, so why bother trying with a halfhearted effort? Perhaps it’s time to try coexisting with Facebook, much like Twitter, Tumblr and Reddit have, by offering something different. And now, Google+ has that “something different” that it can work with.

And that’s where the new update comes in. Google+ plus launched not knowing what it wanted to be. Did it want to be a Facebook clone? Did it want to offer something completely new? Did it want to take over? Did it want to co-exist with a healthy market share? This confusion of intent led to a confused product. If something doesn’t know what it wants to be, it ends up offering up mediocre versions of lots of things. Users won’t go for a mediocre product when the internet provides so many better options.

Back in July, Google finally ended the policy that made a Google+ account essential for using any of Google’s other services. This requirement was meant to tie all of Google’s products together under one big social banner, but all it ended up doing was annoying… pretty much everyone. Despite Google saying at the time that it was going to keep focusing on Plus and its ability to connect people via their interests, many people figured that backing away from Plus as a cover all social platform was the unofficial death knell of the service, and that Google would slowly but surely discontinue Plus in coming updates.

Not so. It turns out Google wasn’t pulling our legs when they said they were going to focus on making Plus an “interest hub” (our words not theirs). The new update puts Communities and Collections at the forefront of Google+, making the site about these two features, rather than just having them as a part of it. This makes perfect sense, as Communities and Collections are easily Google+’s most popular services. Finally, Google+ is taking on a real focus. They’ve realised what works, what doesn’t, and what they should be heading towards.

Communities + Collections

Both Communities and Collections are similar in concept: they’re both about connecting people and posts through shared interests rather than a real life social connection like Facebook’s “friend” system. Communities focuses on bringing people together under one topic. For example, if you’re a Harry Potter fan you could join one of many Harry Potter related Communities, connecting with strangers who share the same interest as you. In the Community, all these people share their Harry Potter related content for the enjoyment of other users.

This has several benefits over Facebook’s Wall. Even though most of your Facebook friends are people you know in real life, odds are many of them have very different interests to you. Sharing something you like on Facebook doesn’t guarantee that anyone on your friends list will like it as well. Obviously, this isn’t the case with Google’s Communities. Since everyone in a Community is interested in the same thing, your posts there should theoretically gain more traction: generating more likes and shares.

Collections on the other hand groups your own personal posts together by topic. This allows you to post about more than one interest you might have, but makes it easier for people to identify which of your content is most interesting to them, and connect with it from there. Following a collection is a bit like following a Facebook page, but the new layout Google has adopted is much more attractive than Facebook’s Spartan design; without being lairy or overwhelming.

So what does the new update really do? I know we’ve taken a while to get to this critical point but hey, there’s a lot to talk about here! The new update puts Communities and Collections at the forefront of Google+’s functionality. There’s a home page of course, but directly below that you can go straight to your Collections and Communities. They’re extremely easy to locate, and to help you find the things you’re interested in is a prominent, vibrant search function up the top.

Idiot Proof

But these functionalities were all there before: they’re just more obvious now. And that is the single biggest improvement over the old version: user friendliness. This is now one seriously easy social media platform to learn. In the interests of full disclosure, we’re going to share something with you guys. Before this update, our experience with Google+ plus had been more or less negligible. However, despite being complete newbies we were finding ourselves navigating Google+ plus’s features like pros incredibly quickly.

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Navigation is a breeze.

And we discovered something else as well: we actually like the new Google+. It seriously looks great. Posts are large, obvious, and laid out in a way that makes sense. Navigation is a breeze. The home page is very similar in concept to Facebook’s wall, but wow, does it look a lot better! But best of all, Google+ finally feels like it offers something we might actually want to use. The Communities tab is the best feature of Google+, not least for the reason that we’ll cover next. In truth, we only utilized the desktop version of Google+, whether the changes translated as well into mobile versions is less sure.

Users

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EMINEM has 100 thousand fans on Google+… but over 90 MILLION on Facebook.

What Google+ could really use right now is more users. There are some pretty big Communities out there, with the largest topping a million members. That sounds pretty good, but consider this: the biggest Facebook pages top well over 100 million members. Currently, the top pages on Facebook are 100 times more popular than the top Communities on Google+. That’s an enormous deficit. 

Which is why Google’s focus on the Communities hub is so important. Connecting you with people who are interested in the same things you are is critical to masking the user deficiency that Google+ plus suffers. Communities on Google+ may be a heck of a lot less popular than their Facebook equivalents, but there are still enough users on there to produce enough content to keep things lively and interesting. Communities makes Google+ feel like less of a ghost town: which is critical for attracting new audiences who would get bored with a lack of activity. It also makes it less important that your friends might not be on it. Okay, when we say might not be on it, we mean are not on it. Google+ plus isn’t trying to replace Facebook anymore: it failed epically at that. It’s now offering a different social service, making it easier to connect with strangers interested in the same things as you rather than with friends who aren’t.

What Next?

Will the new users Google+ needs materialise? That remains to be seen. Word of mouth is a huge deal in any industry, so once word gets around that hey, Google+ is actually pretty decent these days, we might see an upswing in users. This is what Google claims is already occurring. Their official blog claims that 1.2 million new people join a Community per day, with an even bigger take up for Collections. These aren’t staggering numbers, but they’re good ones, and if they can continue and even get better then Google+ might actually have a bright future: something that seemed almost impossible a year or so ago.

Focusing on Collections and Communities in the new update was definitely the right way for Google to head, if it wants to keep Google+ alive as a viable platform. That point can’t be stressed enough. Taking on Facebook head on was a disaster, and meant that Google+ wasted years treading water in a social media wasteland, not going anywhere and ticking off a lot of people in the process. By throwing off the shackles and expectations that come with having to link all of Google’s platforms together, and focusing instead on features that people might actually want to use, rather than the ones they’re forced to, Google+ is taking a massive step in the right direction.

We’re not saying that Google+ is going to be an automatic success thanks to this update. It still has a long way to go to reach even a tenth of the success Facebook enjoys. But those who dismissed this platform as a lemon might want to go back for a quick squizz right about now. You might just find something you like.