For small local businesses, the main argument against using Google+ as a social platform is that few of their friends use it. Therefore few of their clients will use it, and if such is the case, why bother?
Google+ has been taking a lot of flak from bloggers and industry pundits for being a "ghost town": huge user numbers (boosted by the integration of G+ with all Google tools)... but very low user engagement (just a few minutes/month/user - Nielsen 2013).
On top of that, most local businesses we discussed with on the topic confess that they are lost in the user interface of Google+, and sadly enough most don't even know they can create a local business page and manage it actively from their own Google+ profile.
Considering the possibilities offered by Google+ to businesses to reach further out — far away from their friends and family (Facebook's main positioning) and their immediate local "Facebook groups" — it's a bummer that they don't learn how to use Communities and Circles to reach out to people interested in what they have to offer.
In my opinion this failure is a reflection of several factors:
- Google never made it easy for businesses to understand its User Interface. Digging down into a G+ account is way too complicated for small business owners with little IT skills. For the Ph.Ds at Google, this statement may sound totally far-fetched and non-sensical. We bet however they never came down from their PhD pedestals to meet small business owners face-to-face and test the G+ skills of the latter by asking them to perform simple tasks. We did. The results were dismal. The UI of G+ is too layered for small business owners, and the fact it changes periodically makes it even worse. Who has time to re-learn soimething already hard to understand?
- Google never engaged the community of business app developers. We heard Brad Horowicz and other top Google honchos pontify on how they had to "protect Google+ from spam" and therefore closed Google+ to developers with no API to speak of. The net result speaks the truth: Google+ user engagement stats are abysmal. The reputation of Google+ as a social platform is shot.
Compare G+ with Facebook, LinkedIn and WordPress:
- Facebook took a stance opposite to that of Google+ early on, enabling developers to play with its API and to create feature-rich apps that would engage personal and business users alike. From a "Friends & Family" network, Facebook has become a business network with huge revenues from business advertising.
- LinkedIn is rapidly evolving from the "Resume platform" to a full-fledge "business platform", allowing businesses to promote their identities and services through multiple API-based tools that developers and companies put to good use.
- WordPress has become the de facto standard of all blogs/website builders because it benefits from the support of a huge developer base that is extremely creative. Businesses now use Wordpress for their main websites because they can have killer front-ends.
Google+ has no developer community to speak of. It's impossible to share content from external applications to G+. It's impossible for a business to organize a contest on G+ (when it's totally easy to do that on Facebook). You can't run a G+ Comments box on a website. And logging in with your G+ ID to a web application has become a possibility only very recently: Facebook had this feature enabled over 2 years ago ("Login with your Facebook account").
The UI of G+ — with convoluted screens and pathways — makes it difficult to interact with it. The complexity disease isn't specific to Google+. Try attaching over 25 MB of files to a GMail message: Google will tell you have to use Google Drive. Alrighty then, but instead of just pressing on a YES button and have your selected files directly uploaded to Google Drive, lo and behold, you have to re-select the files from your hard drive! What a waste of time.
But wait, that's not all! Once the files are uploaded to Google Drive, Google sends you an error message that has you press another Share button to confirm you want to share the files! (Why in the world would you have to confirm this when your first intent was to send the files by email to a specific person?)
Too much monkey business. Typical of complicated persons full of their Ph.D. hubris.
The real promise of Google+ wasn't very clear from the get-go: It was not the 'friends and family' network. It was not your 'personal resume' network. It was not your 'real-time news snippets' network. So what was it to be?
Guy Kawasaki described it as "the network of passionate people". Alright, that was an acceptable definition. I am a passionate photographer and Google+ enables me to connect to other passionate photographers, share art and tips with them, and learn much in the process. I can share with people in New Zealand, Japan or Eastern Europe, people I would not have known otherwise. So Google+ has a social function to connect me with people from all over the world who share my passion.
But is this all?
I fully believed Google+ was meant to be a strong tool in Google's arsenal of business tools to help small business owners to reach outside the confines of their local business friends and local business groups (in Facebook).
Google is the topmost business and information search engine, so Google+ was a natural social extension of this positioning. After all, everyone goes to Google to find products and services, and the success of Adwords is a reflection of this positioning. It made business sense for Google+ to find its own position as the 'business social network' intimately hooked into Google Search, Gmail and YouTube.
The unfortunate reality however is that Google+ hasn't succeeded in becoming this tool. Its managers failed to make it easy to use; failed to facilitate its everyday use in business life through business applications; and failed to cultivate a strong following in the world of business/consumer app developers.
As a result, the word on the street today is that Google is ready to shelve Google+ altogether. What a shame. A shame to have wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on a platform that could still create a new paradigm in business social communication. A shame to have failed to transform this platform into a repository of meaningful business conversations that would have help Google to improve the precision of both Search and Adwords.
A perfect illustration of this stupidity is Google execs asserting that +1s are not valid enough as social signals to impact Search. Facebook uses the exact contrary approach: the more social signals, the more relevant the post and the longer and higher the post in the Facebook stream. It's all about conversation. People vote with their Likes, Comments, Shares. What's relevant to them is taken into consideration by the network and the reach of the post expands. Beautifully social.
Google suspects (rightfully so) that the SEO community will warp his +1 signal to manipulate its search results. Yes, they will. But Google is no stranger to these deviances, and Google+ profiles are verified strongly enough to limit the possibilities left to SEO spammers to register millions of accounts to send fake social signals to Google algorithm.
There is a trade-off between becoming a significant social tool (thereby entailing the risk of spam) and remaining a closed tool with no social impact (assuredly of no interest to the SEO community and to spammers). But with proper verification procedures, the spam risk is controlled and Google+ would have been pushed by the SEO community to business owners as the topmost tool to improve their local reach and have business conversations with their clients/prospects.
It takes staunch advocates to get business owners to use a tool. Business owners are not prone to using IT tools. Facebook has garnered the support of social media managers, ad agencies and app developers, and guess what... They are having a big payday in advertising revenues today.
Google+ execs' grandstanding actually barred the tool from getting adopted by business owners. Consumers shunned it for the same reasons: too complicated, and what's the purpose when we already have Facebook?
This cohort of issues is reflected in the Google+ tagline: "Connect with friends and family, explore your interests, and see how all of Google gets better." The first niche ('friends & family') is already fully served by Facebook. Google+ already lost this war. Move on. The second clause ('explore your interests') is better, but not powerful at all. What's in it for me? The third clause is a farsical joke. Nobody (and I mean no-bo-dy) cares about checking how Google is improving. Someone should be urgently fired from the exec team to have conceived of such an egotistical statement. It only shows how divorced Google execs are from their user base.
But is the Google+ story over and done?
We hope not. In spite of all its failures, Google+ has the potential to becoming a really interesting business tool. There are so many ways it is integrated in Google's product suite, it would make no sense to decommission it.
Google has recently offered qualifying social media managers who have developed tools to manage their business clients' social pages a new possibility to apply to become "Google partners"... and link up their social management tools to Google+ through G+ API.
Ha! Is this a change in the right direction or what?
Does Google intend to save a sinking ship by enrolling the support of some of the most ardent advocates of the "business + social" paradigm?
This would actually be extremely good news for the local business community because down the road, with a lot of tweaks and a lot of good help from third-party developers, Google+ could finally become the platform it had the potential to become and offer local businesses a way to get more support in their community.
This could be a long hard road, and it would most likely require a change in Google's corporate culture: less Ph.Ds, more die-hard marketers with their ears on the ground, and an extra-super dose of common sense based in real business experience.
Personally, I look forward to this turnaround. I hope my business friends will find in a "Google+ 2.0" the tool they really need to blend harmoniously their business presence in the search results with their social presence, and boost their reach and revenues.