In case you were wondering if you need to get on Google+, we’re here to tell you that this networking experience was dead on arrival. It never had a chance. Google+ (at least as a social network) is destined for the growing dust heap of failed Google ventures that have fallen outside of the company’s core expertise in search. The fledgling social network will owe its failure to the same characteristics that drive Google’s great successes and has plagued other ventures – Google excels at engineering but doesn’t seem to understand the importance of user interface or user experience in general.

In our humble opinion, Google’s additional offerings are clunky and lack intuitive design. We’ve always found this a bit odd, since Google’s initial success in search was in part due to a well-executed user interface. In the days of dial-up, page load time (certainly an aspect of user experience) was a major complaint of most users, and Google’s page came up the fastest. The fact that its technology and algorithms produced superior search results may never have become generally known if surfers
weren’t so appreciative of the ease-of-use (load time) that catalyzed word-of-mouth through the traditional and viral networks available in those days. Despite the initial genius of the stark and
sparsely populated Google search homepage, Google today seems removed and aloof from the user experience.

But isn’t Google+ the fastest growing social network ever?

From a communicator’s perspective, the expansion of Google+ should have your attention – more than 40 million sign-ups since June, according to a report issued in October. And if registered accounts were the margin of victory, Google+ would be an odds-on favorite to usurp Facebook as the king of social networks in short order. But accounts do not make a social network – people do, and Google+ is losing ground on a key indicator of successful engagement: traffic. In a social network, the value is derived from user activity and creates engagement and growth.

Marketers seek to take their message to where the people are spending their time and attention. A few moments spent on Google+ will reveal that it generates limited engagement at best. We recently conducted a couple of Google+ searches outside of our “circles” for what we considered to be predictable and/or trending topics for this time of year. Searches for “Consumer Electronics Show” or “CES” produced only a handful of comments for a 24-hour period – not the sign of a robust and vibrant
online community.

So why has Google failed to activate its registered millions? Forrester says it’s because people don’t have time for more social networking. We would disagree with that conclusion; people make time for things that they value. We think it will fail because Google+ is ugly and confusing. Google did some things right. It created the hype and made it very easy to sign-up for Google+,; but its interface is so poorly designed that we suspect many who began to experiment with it gave up early, because any value created by the network wasn’t readily apparent.

But what about the +1 button?

Google says it’s connecting all its products- Gmail, YouTube, etc. – through social features in an effort to help tie things together. For instance, Google+ users can flag cool links, videos and other things for their contacts by clicking a "+1" icon, a similar concept to Facebook’s "Like" button. With +1 the button, they also can click on a video in YouTube and port it over to their Google+ home page. People who use the search engine can activate +1 in their search parameters to find things
more quickly – a company website for example. Google says +1 data will allow the company to customize and improve search results for people who use the feature, which is a pretty powerful incentive if you ask us.

But Google‘s challenge here is a classic chicken vs. egg scenario; its engineered and introduced some interesting and innovative technology to a large, but unengaged, audience. The problem with this approach is that the value of Google+ in many ways is invisible; for the average consumer, it’s going to be hard to understand how, and to what degree, you’re helping your own search experience by periodically pushing on a little “+1” icon while surfing the Web. How do you know for sure that your
search experience is better? Likewise, features that create social networking value are easily replicated within Facebook and other social platforms that already have widespread consumer
engagement and therefore lack the differentiation to inspire word-of-mouth and viral adoption.

At the end of the day, Google has a communications issue: it’s failed, through both its software design and marketing communications, to create any lasting engagement with the user.

The implications for marketing and PR

As responsible marketers, we should continue to monitor Google+ closely – the company’s financial resources and user base in search allow it to put money and people behind a new product very quickly. But we shouldn’t feel required to invest significantly in the social networking aspects on Google+. The personalized search implications of Google+ are another matter. Brands need a baseline presence on Google+, and our colleague will explore this in a future post. If Google solves its communications issues and illustrates its vision from the user’s perspective, we may yet discuss the vast potential of Google+ for marketing and communications programs; but today it is less than a tertiary option in the social networking realm at best.