How Google+ can keep tech's fashionistas buzzing

Google's social network is no longer the shiny new toy of the week. Now comes the hard part: adding lots of users even as the hype dies down.

Jay Greene Former Staff Writer
Jay Greene, a CNET senior writer, works from Seattle and focuses on investigations and analysis. He's a former Seattle bureau chief for BusinessWeek and author of the book "Design Is How It Works: How the Smartest Companies Turn Products into Icons" (Penguin/Portfolio).
Jay Greene
4 min read
Google+ promo graphic

It's a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world when it comes to the Web. Just consider Google+.

The wannabe Facebook, the Twitter killer, the next great thing in social media, went live just over a month ago. And already tech fashionistas are looking for the next thing.

Just last week came word that Google+ traffic was beginning to dip. Market research firm Experian Hitwise reported that Google+ had 1.79 million visits for the week ending July 23, a 3 percent decline from the previous week. Google quickly pointed out that the measurement didn't include two "very critical" modes of interaction--mobile usage and clicks from the Google navigation bar.

Google+ rocketed from the June 28 launch of the "project," a word the company used to distinguish the service from being thought of as a fully-baked offering. It already has 20 million users, even though the service continues to limit users to those invited by its current audience.

And the service has captured much praise from tech reviewers, particularly for Circles, the ability to easily group social networks by categories so that updates can be targeted. It's also won kudos for Hangouts, a video chat service that allows up to 10 users on a conference call at a time.

But falling traffic, even if negligible, doesn't bode well for a service that needs to continue meteoric growth to approach the 750 million people on Facebook. And it's not just a dip in visits that should raise concern. Experian Hitwise also found that the average visit to Google+ during the week ending July 23 was 5 minutes 15 seconds, 10 percent shorter than the previous week.

Some of that can be attributed to the rapid aging of the latest shiny new toy. But it's the wrong trend for Google if it hopes to turn the service, as chief executive Larry Page said during a conference call with financial analysts last month, into a product "that everybody uses twice a day, like their toothbrush."

So what's Google's next step to build upon the service that had such a promising start? First, expect the company to open the service to the masses. The fact that the service jumped so quickly to 20 million users, and barely suffered an outage, is remarkable enough. For a social network to be relevant, it needs to have lots of users to give its audience a reason to stick around.

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But it's not just about adding more eyeballs, something Facebook co-founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg noted at a press conference last month announcing plans to include Skype's video chat technology into his social network. Despite Facebook's huge number of users, Zuckerberg believes a more important metric to measure going forward will be the value those users get from the service. That will translate into the time they spend on Facebook, which will drive the number of applications created for the service. That, in turn, should fuel a network effect where one feeds off the other.

It's a lesson Google should heed. It's still early days, but Google will need to ramp up its efforts to build partnerships on Google+, much in the same way Facebook has. Google can't do everything on its own, so it will need to open the service to developers to create applications that draw in more users. Eventbrite, the Web service that helps people host parties, lets customers connect through Facebook, for example. The partnership makes both services more valuable. To thrive, Google+ will need to create a platform for others to build upon.

Perhaps the most important piece of Facebook's platform: social games. CityVille and Bejeweled Blitz lure casual gamers and keep them using the service for hours at a time. Clearly, Google recognizes the importance of gaming as well. It's reportedly working on a "Games Stream" in Google+ that will contain "updates shared from games."

And Google could stand to add more businesses to the service. That might seem like selling out. But social networks have allowed companies to connect with consumers, offering deals and sharing unique content. It might not be the reason why folks initially turn to the service. But Google+ might just find it's a great way to keep them there.

Google's Matt Waddell recently posted the latest updates to the service, including the ability to re-order circles by dragging them left or right, and its +1 button, akin to Facebook "like" button, now rendering as much as three times faster. Nice, to be sure, but nothing that's going to create new momentum. Google declined to discuss any next steps for the service.

"Google+ is an ongoing project and this is just the beginning," a spokeswoman said. "We plan to add a lot of features and functionality to Google+ over time. We're just excited to get started."