Dear Google: Please give Google+ a purpose

Google+ had a big week. First, Google launched Google+ Local as a replacement for Google Places, then it was revealed the site's getting an events feature, much like social networking juggernaut Facebook. But is it too little, too late? It seems like an odd proposition, since Google+ has been around less than a year. But as failed Internet endeavors of yesteryear have learned, a year on the Internet is like an eternity elsewhere: once a bad perception exists, it's hard to get rid of.

A mere two months ago, Google redesigned its social network to feature a more inviting, fresh interface. Unfortunately for the company, the majority of the site's users hardly ever use the service in the months following their first interactions with it.

It's certainly fair to point out Google+ hasn't had enough time to implement the sheer amount of features Facebook has, which may be the reason the service hasn't seen a similar zealot-like following from its users. But at the same time, when you're one of the biggest technology companies in the world, much is expected of you, even when you're entering services that are outside your core competencies.

Beyond lacking a few features, however, why hasn't Google+ caught on? Simply put, the service isn't unique in almost any way.

This isn't just an observation from an outsider. Google's former employees have made similar statements. Earlier this week, a former Google employee called the service a clone of Facebook.

"I think Google+ is an effort that does not deserve the engineering minds at Google," Spencer Tipping, former Google employee, wrote in a blog post addressing why he left Google. "This is mostly a personal bias. I see Google as solving legitimately difficult technological problems, not doing stupid things like cloning Facebook. Google, in my opinion, lost sight of what was important when they went down this rabbit hole."

Tipping's statements don't represent the first time a former Google employee's had harsh words for the company because of Google+. James Whittaker left Microsoft in 2009 to join Google as the company's test director. Earlier this year, Whittaker rejoined Microsoft with strong statements against Google's social media endeavor. Whittaker said Google felt threatened of Facebook, fearing the site could take a bite out of Google's advertising revenues.

It's no secret that Google and Facebook are quickly becoming sworn enemies. Google's long been the darling of the Internet, and it's clearly unwilling to cede its throne of Internet supremacy to Facebook. Google may have started out as a search company, but it's quickly expanded its offerings to other Internet services; Facebook, too, will likely take a similar path in time. So it makes sense that the company would want to fend itself against Facebook's expansion, but if Google wants to encroach on Facebook's turf, it needs to do so in a smarter manner.

The point is this: Social networking sites are defined by how people use them. Google's not interested in creating a social network for the purpose of being a social network, it's creating a social network in an attempt to stop advertising dollars from going to Facebook and Twitter, as Whittaker directly stated and Tipping implied.

Twitter's perceived as a great social network because users feel like they're interacting with global news. You're not just sending tweets out into the ether, you're sending them to the world to read and interact with. Users can also use the site's tagging feature to start trends that could potentially catch on nationally or globally. Facebook's perceived as a great social network because users can easily find and interact with long-lost friends, community members and best buddies. The site offers a host of features that allow personal interactions.

So what does Google+ do that will make users think it's great? Well, nothing. There's not a killer feature, nor is there a reason to use it instead of Twitter or Facebook. Instead, Google apparently hopes to redefine social media by doing the exact same things Facebook and Twitter do. It doesn't differentiate its experience; instead, it attempts to mash the features of Facebook and Twitter together haphazardly.

The one standout feature of Google+, Hangouts, is largely irrelevant because Google doesn't know what it wants its social network to be. Is it a public forum, akin to Twitter, or is it for connecting with friends, like Facebook? That's hard to say, because Google hasn't provided a vision for the site. Mark Zuckerberg has been adamant in his vision for Facebook and what the company hopes to accomplish, even if it meant ruffling the feathers of Wall Street elite. Twitter, too, has provided a vision of global interaction where users express what's happening around the world.

That's a shame, because Hangouts is truly a great feature. Sure, Facebook has its own video calling feature powered by Skype, but it doesn't offer the sheer capabilities Hangouts does. Hangouts offers the ability for up to nine users to video chat with one another; Facebook is currently limited to one-on-one video chatting. Facebook may have far more capabilities than Google+ in almost every other regard, but as far as video chats are concerned, there's no competition.

Google's stumbled in even in the most minor ways the service could differentiate itself from the most popular social network. Facebook's received heavy criticism for its privacy tools. Instead of allowing users a more private experience, however, Google seems to have gone the opposite route. The default settings for profiles are fairly open, and the site lacks more advanced privacy features than Facebook. Instead, it's essentially lock-step with its biggest rival.

This wouldn't be a problem if the network promoted openness as Twitter does, but it is a problem since the service still lacks even that basic definition. It has a rip-off of Twitter's Discover feature with its Explore tab, which even copies Twitter's trending style. At the same time the service is clearly a direct copy of Facebook in almost every other aspect.

If Google wants to copy Facebook, however, it's doing a poor job at it, as the company seems willing to let Facebook win support from third-party developers. Google is refusing to grant write access to its API, meaning developers can't post stories from applications, an issue that has deterred development on the platform. Similarly, pages on Google lack the analytic information Facebook provides, making the social network nowhere near as valuable to businesses as Facebook. This is somewhat ironic, given the statements made by prior employees that Google primarily created the platform to stop Facebook's advertising advances.

New social networks need to be unique if they're going to attempt to take on the dominance of Facebook and Twitter. Path, a relatively new social network, has separated itself from the competition by being utilized solely as a mobile application. Given the fact that mobile Internet use is seeing substantial growth, perhaps a service along Path's lines could be the future. Pinterest has found its own success too, becoming the third-most visited social network by focusing on visual interactions.

It's debatable whether or not the Internet needs Google+ to be successful, but right now it's hard to debate the site has much going for it in terms of uniqueness. Its recent redesign was nice – Facebook's home page could use a redesign over its currently cluttered state – but it didn't address the main problem the site faces: why should people use it? Right now, Google's not giving it much purpose. Throwing money at a problem will only do so much. To be successful, Google's going to have to do much more than that.

Google+ isn't a bad service. It just does nothing to differentiate itself from the competition.

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