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Minus Its Leader, What's Left at Google+?

While Google denies a change in strategy, multiple options are being considered, and the new Google+ leader has a smaller title.

Ahmad Faizal Yahya/Shutterstock

Without its biggest champion and original leader, Vic Gundotra, insiders say the fate of Google+, the search giant’s big attempt to dominate the social- and identity-driven Internet, is less clear than ever.

The facts: Gundotra took his leave from the company this week, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family and not take another job. A replacement Google+ head has been named, engineering lead Dave Besbris, but he doesn’t have the same title nor the internal leadership position or power that Gundotra enjoyed.

The context: Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard some of the same chatter as TechCrunch reported on — specifically, that Google+ may be split into parts, with products like photos being spun off.

But multiple people in leadership roles at Google+ say they honestly don’t know what comes next. “Nothing is confirmed at this point, but we’re all waiting for the next shoe to drop in terms of what’s next in this org,” one executive from the team told Re/code on Thursday.

Four of the main assets within Google+ are the social stream, photos, messaging (Hangouts) and identity (Google sign-in for other properties). Of those, the Facebook-like social stream seems to have the least support, with multiple current Google employees expressing skepticism that it is worth keeping around.

But the reality is, Google would have a revolt on its hands if it were to cut that product. As of October 2013 the social stream served 300 million monthly active users on Web and mobile, according to Google. While Google has a reputation for killing off products — for example, Google Reader — that were explicitly described as having low and declining usage, Google has done nothing but tout Google+ usage numbers (at times, far too aggressively).

Among the potential scenarios on the future of the service is one that calls for the separation of key pieces that will migrate to adjacent products. Some Google+ team members readily admit to natural fits between their products and other things within Google — specifically, the social stream and Gmail; messaging and Android/apps; and identity and search. Within that framework, some have talked about Google+’s neat photo capture and editing tools being spun off into its own thing, a la Instagram.

And while messaging and photos are the two darlings of the mobile world, the Google sign-in product has actually seen particularly strong growth lately, said multiple Google sources. It is getting quite popular on Android, where people use it to register for apps as an alternative to Facebook Connect.

But again, the future for all four of these appears to be up in the air, and Google is denying any change altogether.

“The news has no impact on our Google+ strategy,” said a Google+ spokeswoman.

Diminished Role

On the leadership front, Google handed Google+ over to veteran engineering leader Dave Besbris, known internally as “Bez.” He was one of Gundotra’s key reports and had led engineering on Google+ since the beginning, though he had cut a lower profile than product head Bradley Horowitz.

Googlers and former Googlers described Bez as “Vic’s right-hand man” and “a good guy.”

“If Google+ were its own company, Bez would have been its COO,” wrote Google+ chief architect Yonatan Zunger in a Google+ post. “He’s also an amazing leader: someone who profoundly understands the subtleties of social, of apps, of engineering, of product, and of how to run an organization.”

Zunger and others said Besbris was a natural replacement for Gundotra, based on how Google+ is currently structured. “It was kind of an obvious decision. Bez has 1,000 people in his org and Brad has 20,” said one person on the Google+ team.

However, multiple former Google+ employees were unimpressed by the leadership shuffle. “The emperor had no clothes; who’s going to lead the troops and provide vision? Not Bez. He’s like a chief of staff, not a visionary, not a salesman,” said one. Another person close to the company described Besbris as a true engineer, interested in the mechanics of how the products work, rather than someone who looks at the greater social landscape on a macro level.

Besbris is keeping his title as VP of engineering and will not be promoted into Google’s elite SVP ranks, a Google spokeswoman confirmed.

People currently on the Google+ team told Re/code that Besbris’s lack of status suggests a diminished role for Besbris and perhaps Google+ within the organization. Gundotra, who was on Page’s “L-team,” had been crucial in big new hires and retaining internal leaders, because he had the ear of Google CEO Larry Page and the spending power that comes with the SVP rank.

(That said, it’s not unheard of for someone in charge of an important thing at Google not to be an SVP. Maps and geo head Brian McClendon is a VP of engineering who’s not on the “L-team,” as well.)

Some of Gundotra’s recent high-profile snags include former Shazam CTO Jason Titus, who just joined Google+ as an engineering director, and Adobe PhotoShop veteran John Nack, who recently joined the Google+ photos team.

“Nobody else can go into that room and say we need to pay this person millions of dollars,” said a current Google+ employee.

That loss of talent wouldn’t be good for Google+’s long-term prospects. But then again, from an outsider’s perspective, Google+ has become a bloated project. It has more than 1,000 team members, after all.

Another person to keep an eye on within the Google+ organization is Nikhyl Singhal, multiple sources said. He is currently leading product on both photos and Hangouts, and is also involved in the sign-in product. Singhal joined Google in 2011 when it acquired his startup SayNow, which helped people sign up to get voice messages from celebrities and brands. His original assignment was with the Google Voice team.

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