Google yesterday admitted it was wrong to require Google+ account holders to use the company's other digital products, marking a significant policy departure for its struggling social media hub that was hailed as a "Facebook killer" in 2011. The Mountain View, Calif.-based player will not force products onto Google+ users and will move some features into other Google services.
The development calls into question whether Google+ is on its last legs, particularly with marketers. So, when we asked a few agency execs to weigh in, we expected eulogies of sorts, more than anything. But instead, we got answers that were quite nuanced.
"Google+ as we know it is dead, but there will be pieces of it, once spun off, that we will use in the future," predicted Matt Rednor, CEO at Decoded Advertising. "Hangouts, for example, is a much better video-communication platform than [the iPhone's] FaceTime and could be a successful tool with much greater reach if rolled out as a separate product."
The kind of changes Rednor described are already underway. For instance, Google+ location sharing has been transferred to Google Hangouts, and photos from the platform have been moved to Google Photos. YouTube comments are no longer appearing on Google+, and soon, YouTube won't require commenters to have a Google+ account.
"It doesn't make sense for your Google+ profile to be your identity in all the other Google products you use," Google said in its blog announcement.
Ryan Fey, co-founder and chief brand officer at Omelet, praised Google for its history of digital innovation—in terms of pushing forward the worlds of search, display ads, etc.—but was blunt about the tech giant's missteps with Google+.
"It made its fans feel used instead of loved," Fey said, "which is a feeling that I think has remained over the last four years. Users never really flocked to Google+, and I don't think that'll change now. But I seriously applaud them for recognizing their audience's wants, noticing what works and what doesn't, and taking the right steps to improve the situation."
The failure of Google+ to attract consistent users has had business repercussions, allowing rivals Facebook and Twitter to become the de facto social media anchors for integrated brand campaigns. It wasn't always that way, though; marketers like Cadbury, ESPN, PlayStation and Ferrari dove in with both feet just a few years ago.
At the same time, Grant Owens, chief strategy officer at Critical Mass, said Google has reeled in valuable data during Google+'s run, which, in his view, probably isn't over.
"I don't think Google will entirely kill anything that allows them to tie user data together across their touchpoints," he said. "The combined data story is what marketers, especially programmatic advertisers, are willing to pay a premium to access. If Google can dismantle all of Google+ without undermining the combined data view, then I could see them letting it fade away into the sunset. But if Google+, in any way, still underpins a single-data view of a consumer prospect, it'll be around for a while."
In fact, Owens said, Google+ could experience a rebirth by way of millennials and others who want a "safe haven" from Facebook-happy parents.
"I've seen Google+ function somewhere between Reddit and Medium with passionate posts and debates unencumbered by baby photos posted by an old high school classmate—i.e., Facebook—or an R.I.P. hashtag to honor a passing celebrity—i.e., Twitter," he explained. "Also, in years of studying digital behaviors, I've learned to never underestimate counterculture. Once the spotlight is turned off…the usage among a small set of progressive users [can] give it a new life."
One thing's for certain: The amount of life Google+ has had up until now has not been enough. What happens to all of the moving parts around it will be closely watched by data-minded marketers.