Google Plus never did catch up to Facebook. As Google Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOG) tried to herd reluctant users into its realm, the site became the butt of jokes and the source of anger. Mostly, it was just ignored. Now, the social network of “+1’s” and Circles may be coming to an end.
This week, Google Plus' longtime leader, Vic Gundotra, abruptly resigned, ending an eight-year tenure. TechCrunch and Financial Times reported that Gundotra’s resignation may not have been voluntary, signaling the company's change of heart over Google Plus.
“Multiple sources” told TechCrunch that Google no longer sees Google Plus as competitive product to Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ:FB) and Twitter Inc. (NYSE:TWTR), but rather as platform to unify its various products and services. Those sources said Google is shuffling more than a thousand members of the Google Plus team to other departments, mostly to Android, while the Wall Street Journal reported that the remaining Google Plus employees moved to a building on the outskirts of the Google campus, evidence of a decline in status within the company.
Google released a statement denying these claims.
“Today’s announcement 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,” a Google spokesperson said.
The statement doesn’t deny that those features, and the talent behind them, have been redirected. Many features of Google Plus, like Hangouts and Photos, have become important tools on the Android platform, and if the reports are true, Google Plus could fade into the background. Some users see signs that the unpopular Circles, which never really captured a mass appeal, may just disappear.
“I don’t believe that G+ is going anywhere, but coincidentally I received a survey from Google about G+ on Tuesday,” Google user Curtis Jacob wrote on a Google Plus thread. “Some of the questions even asked what I would think if G+ didn’t exist anymore.”
In the end, this could benefit Google. The forced integration of Google Plus into Gmail and YouTube inspired a lot of user backlash and even internal conflict, but Google Plus was successful at creating just one account for users to login and use all of Google’s services.
Google has also licensed this login platform to other companies, letting people use their Google Plus accounts to connect with non-Google websites and apps. This service is convenient for both users and the third-party company, and allows Google to collect more information about their users’ online behavior for advertising purposes. If Google Plus can’t defeat Facebook as a social network, it can still compete as an advertising powerhouse.
Google Plus also unified Hangouts, originally a video-chat service, Talk and gChat into a unified communications app that is now the default messaging app on the Android 4.4 KitKat operating system. The success of WhatsApp has proven, at least to Facebook, the potential of messaging apps in the future. Having the Hangouts team work full time on Android could help Google stay competitive in this arena.
Android also already uses the Auto Backup feature of Google Plus for saving photos and videos on a mobile device. If the team behind the successful image-editing features of Google Plus moved to Android, it could focus on bringing these products to Google’s mobile camera app. Some have even imagined turning the active photo-sharing community on Google Plus into an Instagram-like app for sharing mobile photos.
Google’s recent earnings report showed that the company needs to improve on mobile platforms, and Facebook’s earnings report showed how lucrative a successful mobile strategy can be. With the dream of Google Plus as a social destination departing along with Gundorta, Google can now redirect the talent behind Google Plus towards more lucrative opportunities.