Google is winding down Google Plus, says report. But does it make sense?

April 25, 2014
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In the wake of Vic Gundotra’s departure from Google, TechCrunch reports that the company actually plans to scale back its Google Plus efforts substantially.

Vic Gundotra, who’s been with Google since 2007 following a long stint at Microsoft, is considered the father of Google Plus, and one of the lead proponents of the integration of a social dimension into all Google products. If TechCrunch is to be believed, the biggest reason for Gundotra’s departure was actually the company’s intention to put Google Plus on the backburner. According to “multiple sources” cited by the website, Google will no longer try to develop Plus into a real Facebook competitor, and will limit its use to a platform role, a social backbone to other services such as Gmail or Hangouts.

As part as this shift, many of the 1,000 to 1,200 people working on Google Plus will be reassigned to different groups. The Hangouts team has reportedly joined the Android group, and the Photos team could follow it in the future, says the report.

The Wall Street Journal corroborates part of the story, reporting that the Google Plus team has been relocated within the Google campus, from its previously central position. Teams that are deemed important inside Google are placed closer to the office of the CEO, reports the WSJ, so a move may signal a demotion of sorts. Then again, teams move around the campus all the time, said a source of TechCrunch.

Google Plus is not “officially” dead, but without its leading figure and with a reduced workforce, the project’s future is grim, claim the aforementioned sources.

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How credible is this report?

Google has invested enormously in Google Plus, and not just financially. Its decision to push Google Plus integration into many of its other services caused a backlash, especially in the case of YouTube. But until now, Google’s resolve to make Plus work appeared unshaken. Could that change?

The company strongly denied TechCrunch’s report:

“Today’s news has no impact on our Google+ strategy — we have an incredibly talented team that will continue to build great user experiences across Google+, Hangouts and Photos.”

And in his comment on Vic Gundotra’s post announcing his leaving, CEO Larry Page didn’t give away hints of any changes:

“Then you built Google+ from nothing.  There are few people with the courage and ability to start something like that and I am very grateful for all your hard work and passion.  I really enjoy using Google+ on a daily basis, especially the auto awesome movies which I really love sharing with my family and friends.  Good luck with your next project after Google.  In the meantime we’ll continue working hard to build great new experiences for the ever increasing number of Google+ fans”

Moreover, while TechCrunch claims it based its report on multiple sources, the story seems a collection of hearsay tidbits, rather than a scoop based on hard info from a solid source. It’s possible that Google is indeed reorganizing its workforce, moving Hangouts and Photos away from the Plus boss, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Google Plus is dead, or for the matter, a “walking dead,” as the report describes it.

Why would Google even kill Plus? Sure, it’s nowhere near as popular as Facebook. But Google Plus serves a more important role as a social glue for Google services, and in this respect, it’s been quite successful. Unifying all of Google’s disparate, sometimes conflicting identity services into one all-encompassing social backbone has been a major achievement, YouTube trolls aside.

What seems more likely is that Google’s attitude towards Plus has changed, which would explain Gundotra’s departure. It’s possible that the company’s leadership decided that Plus is not as important as initially thought, hence the move of the Hangouts and Photos teams under new bosses. That’s a pretty good reason for an ambitious executive like Vic Gundotra to leave.

Danny Sullivan of Marketing Land puts forward another theory – that Google is separating its social apps (Plus, Hangouts, Photos) to make them more flexible, just like Facebook is said to be doing with the unbundling of its “big blue app” into separate offerings.

What seems safe to say for now is that Google’s social component isn’t going anywhere. But it may change radically in the future.

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