Five years ago, the “Urs-quake” struck: A memo from Google SVP Urs Hölzle went out detailing how Google risked being left beyond on social, prompting the creation of Google+. Years, many millions of dollars and several tribulations later, one of the most beleaguered, storied products in Google’s history looked dead.
In fact, Google has been shedding the pieces of Google+ for years now — pulling out Hangouts and then Photos, decoupling the login from other products — leaving us all to assume it was heading toward obsolescence.
Not so! On Tuesday, in a short little post, Google trumpeted the return of a “fully redesigned” Google+. It centers on two things: Communities, a three-year-old feature for interest-based groups, and Collections, an interest-based sharing feature akin to Pinterest. And it runs on Material Design, the language developed by Android — another indication that Android holds the design mantle within Google.
This first comment on Google’s Google+ page today captures much of the Internet’s response.
Jokes aside, there must be some rationale for why Google decided to retain its ghost town. And so:
Stick With What Works
The original impetus for Google+ was to build a social identity to rival Facebook. It didn’t work. Although Google attracted users — in 2012, the company bragged about being the “fastest-growing network thingy ever” — Facebook drew more, and kept them there. The idea of a pure Google social network never took. What did take (at least relatively speaking) was photo sharing, so Google spun that out. And sharing among obsessives, people active inside insular, niche groups. Google says Communities averages 1.2 million “joins” a day — that’s the number of people who sign up for an individual group. (One person could be signing up for ten at a time, in theory; Google won’t say how far back that average goes.) So Google put these things front and center.
Streams Over Social
When Google started to revamp Plus in 2014, after the departure of its head (and chief lobbyist inside the inner circle of then CEO Larry Page) Vic Gundotra, it reformed the internal team. (A few times.) Ultimately, Plus ended up under Bradley Horowitz, the VP of Photos and Streams. Eddie Kessler, the Googler who announced today’s revamp, is the “director of Streams.” Streams are critical for Google because they are: 1) Mobile creatures, the primary avenue to Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, which are all robbing Google of users’ attention; and 2) Adored by advertisers.
Communities and Collections, the two features at the center of Google+ 2.0, share something vital: They’re built around common interests. Advertisers like things built around common interests; it gives them clear targeting — these people really like this thing, and will buy stuff related to it. Google does not offer a Plus ad product yet, but one around these two features would leverage purchase intent, its key differentiator from Facebook in the ad world.
Others suggested that Google’s action is a move to go after Reddit, another interest-based site with a massive audience that it has struggled to sell ads against.
One person who used to work for Google+ said the redesign is a welcome change, but Google’s approach to social remains incoherent. “It’s kind of like Pinterest meets Reddit: A visual cacophony of content interesting to a bunch of Google users, without much more rhyme and reason than that,” the former Googler said.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.