Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) recently announced that it would remove Google+ integration from all its products, starting with YouTube. That retreat indicates that Google+ -- its doomed attempt to challenge Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) -- will soon join Orkut, Latitude, Buzz, Jaiku, and Dodgeball in its crowded social media graveyard.
It's clear that Google now realizes that requiring users to sign up for Google+ to access its services could turn potential users away from its ecosystem. Bradley Horowitz, Google's VP of streams, photos and sharing, promised in a blog post to "offer better options for managing and removing" Google+ accounts in the near future.
This announcement shouldn't come as a huge surprise to Google+ users. Last year, Google removed Google+ profile photos and circle counts from its search engine, and Google+ founder and chief Vic Gundotra resigned. In March, Google split the network in two, with stand-alone Photos and Streams services. In June, it completely removed Google+ links from Gmail and search results.
All those moves isolated Google+'s active user base from the rest of Google's ecosystem. But if Google+ dies, can Google possibly loosen Facebook's iron grip on social media?
Why social networking matters
Back in October 2013, Google claimed that Google+ had 300 million active users who viewed its Stream on a monthly basis. It didn't provide any updates after that; but this January, pseudonymous blogger Edward Morbius estimated that only four million to six million people actively post and interact with each other on the social network every month (excluding YouTube comments), while less than 200 million users have posted any public content at all. By comparison, Facebook finished its first quarter with 1.44 billion monthly active users.
Google's weakness in social networking leaves it vulnerable in three ways. First, the more time people spend on Facebook daily, the less time they'll spend on Google's services, which translates to less user data and fewer ad views. To keep users locked in longer, Facebook has launched its own video and news publishing services, and is evolving Messenger into a monolithic app platform.
Second, Facebook uses single sign-ons, which are sprinkled across third-party apps and sites, to tether users (and their data) to its main site. Lastly, Google mainly crafts ads based on digital footprints like search and location data, but users voluntarily give detailed personal information to Facebook by updating their profiles, which makes it a goldmine of personal data for advertisers.
According to Google insiders interviewed by Business Insider, Google+ failed because it was designed to tether users to its other products, rather than helping users connect to each other in meaningful new ways. Its Circles system was also considered more confusing than simply friending a person on Facebook.
But don't count Google out yet
Google+ might be on its deathbed, but Google still plans to strike back against Facebook in two new ways. In May, Google launched its stand-alone Photos app, which automatically backs up users' photos to an unlimited cloud storage service. The app can automatically identify animals, objects, and events, which provides Google more data for targeted ads.
It's not a new idea -- Facebook AI Research (FAIR) is also developing similar image recognition tools. However, Google Photos has already been installed at least 50 million times on Android, indicating that it could be a much more useful service than Google+.
That same month, Google unveiled Android M, the latest version of its mobile OS, at its I/O developers conference. With M, Google will try to corral all mobile apps and websites -- which were straying toward Facebook -- within its ecosystem.
It plans to do that with "Now on Tap," which scans through the text of apps and sites for searchable terms when the Home key is pressed. For example, if a friend asks you if you want to see a movie in an email, you can use the feature to automatically pull up a card with a brief summary.
Other buttons will let you view the trailer on YouTube, check tweets about the film on Twitter, or read additional reviews on other sites. This allows Google to place an "Android overlay" over third-party apps and sites, and gather data from them, even if they're tethered to Facebook.
The key takeaway
In my opinion, it's highly unlikely that Google will launch another "Facebook-like" social network after Google+ fades away. Instead, it will keep collecting user photos to gain more personal data, and leverage its increased control over Android M to mine more data from third-party apps and sites. Google's solutions certainly aren't as elegant as Facebook's system, but they're necessary to ensure that its targeted ads remain relevant.