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New Google+ Head David Besbris: We're Here for the Long Haul (Q&A)

Despite rumors that Google+ is on the decline, Besbris says Google has a long-term focus on social.


Google+ isn’t dying anytime soon, says Google’s new head of social media David Besbris.

Of course, you’d expect the person in charge of the social network to say so, despite the fact that it’s hard to ignore the chatter about the imminent demise of Google’s social media efforts following the departure of longtime Google+ head Vic Gundotra who unexpectedly left in April.

Besbris assured us Google has every intention to continue investment in the division. The former VP of engineering for Google+ took the reins from Gundotra in April, and now oversees all of Google’s social products. The Google+ team has new offices on the east side of Google’s sprawling Mountain View, Calif., campus, and rumors that the team was dwindling are also not true.

“We’re the largest we’ve ever been,” Besbris told Re/code in an exclusive interview. “We weren’t booted to any part of campus, we chose to come over here.”

We caught up with Besbris to learn what he has in store in the months ahead.

The interview that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Is Google+ going away anytime soon?

We’re actually very happy with the progress of Google+. [CEO Larry Page] said this at the time that Vic transitioned that he’s going to continue working on building this stuff, that he’s very happy with it. The company is behind it. I have no idea where these rumors come from, to be honest with you.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about Google+?

People underestimate the connection Google+ has with its users around interests. I think people come to Google+ with this expectation that it’s going to be Google’s attempt to do some other product — we’re doing this to compete with somebody and it must be something like that. That’s not actually how we compete with products. We don’t approach products in that we need to go into [certain] industries because somebody else is doing something important. We go into this industry because we want to make users happy, because we see some software out there that’s scratching some itches.

This is how Google has always done stuff. There were search engines before Google, we just did it differently. There were email systems before Gmail came out, we just approached the problem differently. We had a different way we thought we could solve the core use cases [on social]. I think the social graph is pretty nuanced. The idea that everybody you [know] has the same access to you is just not a correct model for humanity. Our users love Circles. They love that Google+ has privacy built in as a feature from the very beginning. That nuanced sharing that we’ve led with, and others have added to their products which I think is wonderful, has been a big improvement to the industry.

Of all the social products you have, where does Google+ fall in terms of your priority list?

Very high. Photos, Hangouts, Google+ — I’d say these are my top three priorities. The Google+ app you see out there today is used by hundreds of millions of users, it’s actually something I use every single day with my friends and family and my interests, talking about photography and my unnatural affection for little squirrels and things like that. So I’m a passionate user of these things.

The company often talks about Photos as being one of the strengths of Google+ — what are some of the other strengths?

Video hangouts are pretty incredible. There’s no technology out there as refined for doing the multi-party video as what we have. In the consumer space, some of what we’ve seen that’s really incredible has been communities. That’s what we’ve seen take off like a rocket inside Google+.

What are some areas Google+ needs to improve upon?

We’ve always had really good mobile apps for iOS and Android, but we can never have enough energy or focus on mobile. I’m really happy with what we have but I think it opens up new avenues and new frontiers, stuff we can do with location that we’ve never been able to do before. The phone is this amazing thing, it’s a supercomputer that sits in your pocket with all these nifty sensors. I think as an industry we’ve barely tapped the surface of what this can do.

“We’re the largest we’ve ever been. We weren’t booted to any part of campus, we chose to come over here.” — Besbris addressing rumors that Google+ was shrinking and forced to move buildings

Where are you at right now in terms of users?

I don’t want to talk about numbers.

What’s the biggest challenge to bringing on new users?

For us, it’s been important to understand how users are really using Google+ and how it’s fitting into their lives. We really want to understand how it’s working for them and then tell that story to new users who are coming in so they have a really clean set of expectations.

Has that been a challenge from the beginning — simply explaining what Google+ is to new users?

Possibly. I don’t think Google+ as a single product has been overwhelmingly confusing to users. I think they absolutely get it when they come into the product. I think they come with a bunch of preconceived notions based on things they’ve read in the press, and it’s especially important in the early days when we were building it because no one knew what it was — it was just this new thing that they received an invite to.

We were setting a tone for how we were different, that we lead with privacy, that we had real-time built into the product, that we have great search, that we have face-to-face video, that we do incredible things with your photos. That’s a story we have to tell to users because they don’t get that in other spots.

In the past, people have complained that Google+ has been forced on them when they want to use other Google products. How would you respond to the notion that Google+ has been pushed on users who may not want it?

I only want people to use the software when they want to use the software. As you saw, we recently made changes to the sign-up flow, and I think that was part of what the confusion was. The change that we made was really about asking users the right question at the right time so that it makes sense. There was no grand master plan [to force users to join]. But if it doesn’t make sense people make up their own grand master plan.

Why hasn’t Google+ ever had ads?

I think ads can be — when actually done right — useful. If you’re searching for something and see an ad unit that pops up, that is helpful [so you can] actually go buy the thing that you’re looking for. If you’re looking at pictures of your kids or you get an ad for a mobile home just because you happened to drive by a mobile home park, I don’t think that’s useful. Context is the thing that matters the most.

You want to show an ad when it’s most relevant, when it’s valuable. If you don’t, the ads won’t be great ads. They won’t convert well, they won’t be beneficial and it kind of just pollutes the space. I think for a social place that tends to be very intimate where you’re having conversations with people, you’re sharing pictures, you’re exploring things you’re really into, you don’t want to be at that point bombarded with noise.

Do you have any intention or plans to bring ads to Google+ in the future?

I tend not to rule anything out ever, but I don’t see that they’re valuable as they’re often done in the industry. So no. If we did, we’d try to put a nice Googley spin on them.

How do you look back on what Vic Gundotra did during his time running Google+?

Vic and I started the project together and he’s been a really good friend — still is a really good friend, actually — and a mentor for me since the very beginning. I have incredible admiration for Vic and a lot of respect. Building a new thing is hard, and building a new thing in the social space is probably extra hard. I think he did some great stuff in getting Google+ to the incredible place that it’s at.

What have you tried to do differently to change things up since taking the helm?

He likes sweaters, I like jackets. [laughs] He and I are good friends and we’ve worked together many years but we do have a slightly different approach to how we communicate with the team, how we run meetings. But it’s mostly been stuff like that. There hasn’t been a wholesale change in direction or anything like that. You can print this: I think I’m a better photographer than he is. He’s a snappier dresser.

When you look at popular social categories like ephemeral messaging or anonymous social apps, are you drawn toward those products at all?

Social is very nuanced. I think there are some very different forms of communication, different uses for how people communicate. I don’t think we have to build them all. Anonymous speech as you see in Secret or Whisper has its own mix of pros and cons. Truly anonymous is very hard to do at scale.

The social networking space is really dominated by audience as much as features. I’m really happy with the audience that we have. They’re very passionate, they love Google+ to death. [They see] Google+ as a social network for their interests. That’s what sings to them. I think introducing ephemeral messaging or anonymous communication just because it’s a fad wouldn’t fit with the community or the users that we have. That’s not to say Google won’t make products in these other niches, but I think it’s bad to lump all social interactions into one product space.

What’s the end-game for Google+? What are you trying to achieve in the long run?

I don’t think of it as an end game, I think we’re in social — like we’re in everything at Google — for the long haul. We said this at the beginning of the company, we make long-term bets, we make long-term decisions. Social is a whole aspect of computing, much like any other area you would imagine at Google. Behind every one of these screens is a user, it’s an actual person. People are social creatures, they want to share things, they want to learn from each other, they want to ask questions. That’s really important for us as a company how we can deliver on that.

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