Google Plus' biggest failing? It doesn't understand its users

By Suw Charman-Anderson

Criticism of Google+ is mounting after the service announced its pages for businesses and brands. Slate's Farhad Manjoo wrote a critique of the site, concluding that Google+ is "doomed", primarily because it hasn't rapidly adapted to emergent behaviours by its users.

Back when companies were clamoring to create brand pages on the network—or users were looking to create profiles with pseudonyms, another phenomenon that Google shut down—the company ought to have acceded to its users’ wishes and accommodated them. If Google wasn’t ready for brand pages in the summer, it shouldn’t have launched Google+ until it was. And this advice goes more generally—by failing to offer people a reason to keep coming back to the site every day, Google+ made a bad first impression. And in the social-networking business, a bad first impression spells death.

Screen shot for the Google Plus landing page.

GigaOm's Mathew Ingram thinks that it's too soon to judge whether Google+ is going to survive and that it is "only beginning to show its real power". He mentions other criticisms from various tech luminaries, including Steve Rubel who has abandoned Google+ and Robert Scoble who wrote a post excoriating Google+ Pages.

Ingram believes Google has several cards still up its sleeve, namely tighter integration between Google+ and Chrome, Gmail and Search, the latter via Direct Connect. He goes on to say:

Google+ is noisy for some, and for others is a ghost town. Many of its features are raw and need work, like the brand page rollout. But Google is not just trying to build a place to share photos of your cat — it wants Google+ to be a social layer for everything it does, and it has some powerful levers it can pull when it comes to encouraging people to use it, such as search and email. The full impact of that integration remains to be seen, but it is far too soon to call the network dead or a loser. It’s barely even the third inning.

But all the clever integration in the world can't save a social network if its creators don't understand people and how they behave. Vic Gundotra and his team haven't shown much in the way of empathy and understanding so far, and that's a far bigger challenge for them to overcome.

The first hint that the Google+ team hadn't quite got their head round human nature was the real names debacle. An honest look at how users actually behave on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks should have shown them that a lot of people like to use pseudonyms and that they do so perfectly responsibly. Sure, Facebook asks people to use their real names, but lots of people ignore that, and the site hasn't yet, to my knowledge, imploded.

The illogical rigidity with which Google+ stuck to their real names policy and the inconsistency with which they enforced it sent a very clear message to users: We are in charge, and you will do as we say.

Attempting to force a user to adapt their behaviour in order to fit pre-defined patterns which benefit the site but not the user often results in failure. The Google+ early adopters were, as usual, predominantly geeks, people who love to explore new tools and will actually put up with an awful lot of flaws and problems. (Just look at the early days of Twitter for an example of vast quantities of patience exhibited by users through outage after outage after outage.)

But many of the most enthusiastic early adopters felt unwelcome on Google+ because either they or their friends were being punished for not conforming. Geeks often don't conform; it's part of what makes us who we are. If Google had actually wanted to alienate as many potential users as possible, it couldn't have picked a better way to go about it than to strike at the very heart of its users’ self-identity: their username.

The same failure to understand users' needs can also be seen in the way that the business pages are set up. Pages can’t be administered by a team, because only the person who set the page up can post to it. If you want to share the responsibility, you have to share the Google account it was created with. There are ridiculous rules about what pages can be used for — so no promotions or competitions. There’s no workflow behind the scenes, so there’s no way to have someone more senior approve content before it goes live.

This shows a fundamental failure to understand how people in business actually use social media, what they need from a tool. There’s not going to be any widespread adoption of Google+ Pages if it doesn’t support standard business practices.

And as for the general atmosphere on Google+, public posts have all the civility of a YouTube flamewar. Showing even the slightest opinion can result in random strangers arriving to give pile on the scorn and vitriol. It’s also far too easy for strangers to create a private thread in which they can abuse their victim without any community oversight and, therefore, no peer pressure to stop. All the victim can do is block the perpetrators, but by the time you know you have to, the damage is done. It only takes one encounter like that to drive someone away from a social site for good.

So, is Google+ doomed? Unfortunately, I think Manjoo is closer to the mark than Ingram. I would have more confidence in the future of Google+ if its leadership showed any ability to learn both from their past mistakes and from the community. But there’s no evidence that this is happening often enough. Technology won’t solve Google+’s problems. It needs a swift volte-face, a new focus on understanding and serving its users, not more integration.