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Google+ health check: Dying or thriving?

Google launched its social network Google+ back in 2011. After three years running, has Google+ built enough momentum to remain relevant or is Google ramping it down?

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Image: Richard Nieva/CNET

Google launched Google+ in 2011 with the hopes of weaving a social fabric into Google's ecosystem, but some say the social networking site has had difficulty hitting its stride.

The departure of Vic Gundotra, the former head of Google+, earlier this year — and his recent departure from Google itself — reignited the discussion on the future of Google+, with many claiming that it's still unclear. When asked what he thought about the state of Google+, Forrester analyst Nate Elliott held a contrarian view.

"I think Google+ is in fantastic shape, and I am utterly confused why people keep questioning its health," Elliott said.

Elliott said that the departure of Gundotra is irrelevant to the health of Google+. He compared it to the exit of sales chief Nikesh Arora earlier this year and how Arora's leaving didn't negatively impact Google's sales or its sales strategy.

Another move that caused some confusion about the health of Google+ was when Google recently granted use to the popular Hangouts feature outside of Google+. According to a Google spokesperson, the goal of the Hangouts update was to make video conferencing easier for business users, but companies still use Google+ for other reasons.

"We believe Google+ is the best way to share content inside [and external to] an organization and we've got enterprise customers like Travis Perkins, CBC and Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream, who make great use of it everyday — including using Communities and the stream to stay connected with each other and discover new content," a Google spokesperson said.

It's hard to say how well Google+ is doing based on user count, because Google hasn't released any of that data recently. According to Gartner analyst Brian Blau, the separation of Hangouts could lead to lower business user numbers.

"The only thing that I read into that was just to give businesses more flexibility in how they want to represent themselves using the Google ecosystem," Blau said. "Having flexibility in features is a nice thing for a business but, I have to admit, this is probably going to negatively affect how many businesses are using Google social properties."

Blau also noted that, while this may mean less business users will be using Google+, the ones who are using it will need to take it more seriously. It will raise the overall quality of the way businesses are using Google+ due to the fact that it is no longer simply a foundation for a messaging tool. Elliott said, however, that Google+ remains a useful product regardless.

"At the end of the day, it's a place where users will find many of their connections and will find features that they find useful," Elliott said. "That's enough for them to have collected more users than Twitter has."

Google+ was included in some of the talks at the most recent I/O conference, mainly focusing on its APIs and tools for developers with some mention of feature updates as well. At this point, Google+ probably isn't going anywhere. Blau said that, today, Google+ "appears to be an active and ongoing project at Google."

"We're continually and pleasantly surprised by all the ways people use Google+ — from family sharing and photo walks to marriage proposals and live music performances," a Google spokesperson said. "Ultimately we want to enable meaningful conversations on Google+ — among close friends, and/or people with common interests — so this breadth of activity tells us we're hopefully doing something right."

Still, many of those use cases aren't necessarily appealing to business customers. Moving forward, a spokesperson said that Google's plan for Google+ is to build momentum, eventually turning the site into "the place for meaningful conversations online." For business customers, those conversations are currently happening through Hangouts, and taking that out of the picture doesn't leave much left.

As mentioned by the Google spokesperson, Google+ offers business users a way to share deals with their customers, create events, and build communities around their product. While these are valuable outlets, they are essentially the same tools offered by Facebook, which has more than 1.2 billion active users. But, according to research done by Forrester, Google+ is right on the heels of Facebook in terms of brand engagement.

Relative to how late it got started in social, Google has come pretty far with Google+. Regarding the earlier comparison to Twitter, Elliott said that Twitter user numbers are stagnating because Twitter doesn't do anything new.

"If you went into a coma in 2008 and woke up today, you'd recognize Twitter," Elliott said.

This is why Facebook is doing well for acquiring new users and retaining the current ones, because they innovate relentlessly. They continually offer new features, even if they don't stick, which is the path that Twitter hasn't followed.

"Google+ needs to be more like Facebook than Twitter, when it comes to the user experience," Elliott said. "They need to look for new features and new functionality, and give people new reasons to come back every day. If they do that, we'd expect they would continue to grow."

What do you think?

We want to know. Are you using Google+? Is your business? What do you think about the state of Google+?

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About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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