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Is Google+ Ever Going To Equal Or Supersede The Popularity Of Facebook?

When Google+ finally metaphorically opened its doors to the public in September 2011, there was a great amount of interest – it was seen as one of the great competitors to the behemoth of popularity that was Facebook. It was Goliath going to fight…erm…Goliath I suppose. It was considered a clash of the contenders. With the might of the search engine-toting, software giant Google behind it – a social networking site with that pedigree surely would be a hit?

Popularity soared and the number of people signed up to Google+ rose to a dizzying 90million by January 2012 according to Reuters. However, are there virtual tumbleweeds scouring the landscape of Google+? Are people joining but not contributing as regularly as to Facebook? There seem to be mixed reports on this.

Personally, I only know a few people who have quit Facebook completely to use Google+ alone and they don’t post every day, sometimes days go by without any interaction from them at all. On the flipside, I have friends who use Twitter and Facebook together but they post more on Facebook. Therefore, in my virtual world, I have more friends on Facebook and I interact with Facebook far more than Twitter or Google+ but not everyone has the same experience. I have a disability which means I pretty much spend a large proportion of my life online and so my experience may differ from other people who get to interact with lots of people face to face every day.

Reports suggest that even though there are 90m+ users subscribed to Google+, a smaller percentage of those users are actually using it to interact. This does seem to match my observation but perhaps I’m just not in a group of friends who use it often enough or perhaps I don’t use it enough and so conversely, so to speak, people don’t use it to interact with me?

We have proved that we have a voracious desire for social networking so what is giving Facebook the edge over Google+? As both sites are free to use, having to pay for usage is clearly not a factor in this so what are the possible reasons?

Did Google+ arrive too late?

Since the introduction of Facebook in February 2004, it steadily became a global hit and currently boasts around 845 million users as of February 2012. As popular in our lexicon as “Just Google it!” – “I’ll friend you on Facebook” or “I’ll Facebook you” have become commonplace. Maybe Google+ just arrived a little too late to make an impact in that user base? The problem with this theory is that MySpace was around at the same time and prior to the rise of Facebook and it also seems to have declined in popularity with many reasons cited. Admittedly, MySpace was targeted at a younger audience and at the time of introduction, communicating online was a relatively new activity whereas Facebook appeals to a far wider audience and social networking online is commonplace. Surely it isn’t the fact that Google+ arrived too late to a party where Facebook had already figuratively been entertaining the guests for long enough to draw the attention away from the front door? Twitter is another sort of Social Media and that arrived and became well-liked during the time of Facebook and, although a slightly different model to Facebook this seems to be thriving and is especially favoured by celebrities connecting with their fans. The Google search engine has been around since the late 1990’s but I still remember using other search engines to get websites in the noughties. Now I primarily use Google, as do millions of people each day so it does not seem like early creation automatically guarantees sustained popularity. Perhaps the old saying regarding not fixing unbroken items rings true here and people just don’t want a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist or trouble them a great deal?

Is the hassle of transferring photos, personal data etc too arduous for casual users or too time consuming?

It’s sort of the equivalent of getting a new computer. If you don’t have the luxury of a network drive or the know-how to put things onto a USB memory stick (trying to delete 70000 copies of the same photos from my Dad’s computer that he had accidently created was enough to convince me that I take for granted how much people know about using their computers – not everyone is technologically savvy) transferring data can be a pain.

Uploading to a cloud is all very well but again, trying to use it is sometimes a little complex and for your average user who just wants to take photos and upload them to a social network site to share with their friends – this is catered for. If you want to transfer your photos from Facebook to Google+, there are ways to do it with an add on in browsers, downloading all of your photos then uploading them to Google+ so it indeed can be done but trying to find time in the day to do it could be the blocker to this one. Plus the fact that it may be considered as a task that you don’t really want to get around to, like going for a dental check up – you know it may be beneficial but it will be a hassle regardless. Is this what is putting users off? Or that they may have to upload new photos to both social networking sites?

Is it that not everyone uses Google+ that prevents us from converting?

It is definitely a consideration – you may have 300 friends on Facebook but how many of those people are actually on Google+? It’s something of a vicious circle, you log in to Google+ and can’t find many of your friends, so you don’t use it as you know that other people are active on Facebook, Twitter etc and all the while, other people are doing the same. You then log in to see what your friends are saying and because everyone knows that you are active on other sites they don’t post anything either and so you don’t post anything thinking that few people will read it and you may as well post your thoughts on Facebook or Twitter instead. The cycle continues and in order to break it, something needs to change.

Is it due to complicated user interface?

Taking the example of messaging in Facebook – if you want to send a user a message, either someone with whom you are friends or someone who has their message function available, all you need to do is find the user and select ‘Message’ or Select your Message box and use the New Message button. Simple.

Now, this sort of easy functionality does not appear to be the case for Google+ or perhaps I’m missing the option? Chatting and Hangouts seem to be the way to interact with friends but what if you want to send a one line message to someone and not get into a full on discussion over webcam or hangouts or chat? Of course if I have the person’s email address I can email them but again, for some of my contacts I don’t have email addresses for them and would have to revert to Facebook to message them. I have been using social networking sites for a number of years and if I can’t find functionality like that fairly quickly then users who are new to social networking or people who have tentatively used Facebook and want to consider Google+ may find things like this harder than they should be. The Circles feature, while being clever and funky was maybe something that people found difficult to get their heads around also compared to the groups in Facebook.

When using a new tool, the more intuitive the better and perhaps we have become used to a certain model of thinking – either we need to break that or stick with what we already use. Is the user interface what people really want? Is this why people aren’t using it as much? In all honesty, I had a little trouble getting my head around the concept of Twitter when first using it but once something clicked in my mind, it became clear and I use Twitter happily these days. Twitter feels different to Facebook and it seems that usage of Twitter and Facebook seem separate enough to use them side by side but is getting to grips with the Google+ interface harder than any other tool?

Is it because Google+ seems more segmented than Facebook to some users?

list of google servicesAs many people used Googlemail/Gmail before Google+, could this be something that causes the user to see Google+ as an extension of their mail rather than a social networking site in its own right? Before the event of Google+, logging into Google mail was a daily occurrence for many users and due to other things being implemented afterwards, it is easy to build up the image in your head of Google mail with a social networking site as an added novelty.

With the bar at the top of the screen you can switch from mail to Google+ but mentally it does make it seem as though the two are separate things as well as the other options on the bar. Even selecting them opens a new tab or window which is useful but only serves to make them seem dislocated.

Could this be causing users to see them as different objects to interact with rather than part of the same toolkit?

Or, alternatively, is Google+ too integrated with Gmail?

When creating a Facebook account, you have a message box automatically to share messages between you and your friends, this is part of Facebook. With Google+, when you sign up to Gmail to get a plain and simple email account, there appears to be no option to opt out of Google+ and this may be something that puts people off somewhat. The user may wish to be signed up to Google+ as well as Gmail but not giving people an option either way can lead to people feeling cajoled and this is itself can be a barrier to uptake by a user.

If the user doesn’t really want to use Google+ and while logged into the new email address clicks on the Google+ icon they are suddenly asked to fill out details or to search for friends. This behaviour is useful if you are trying to set up your Google+ account but for another user who is just curious as to what the ‘+You’ option is, a number of boxes popping up can be daunting. Interconnectedness across products for some people may be good but giving the user the chance to opt out and opt in later if they wish is perhaps something that should be considered. This ties in with the privacy policy matters.

Privacy matters?

With the current controversy surrounding the introduction of the new privacy policy and the EU justice commissioner stating that the new rules are in breach of European law from a report on the BBC News website, could this be a further blow to the popularity of Google+? Very few people want to plough through the new rules but with headlines like this, could people be deterred from using the service without looking into all of the information?

After hearing someone recently saying “Well, nobody really reads these internet things do they”, it’s easy to see how someone may be nonchalant or apprehensive about a privacy policy changing. As users in a changing interconnected world we just assume that our data is safe and private where we expect it to be but we need to take some responsibility for our own accounts to a certain extent. In order for users of all skill to do so, the privacy settings have to clearly outline what information will be displayed to various groups of users. In the past, if you said something to your friends in a pub, then realistically they may tell someone else or it may just remain between you and your friends. With social networking, the potential for your every word to reach a larger audience has grown and this is something that a lot of people seem to forget.

A rant about a particular thing may not just be seen by your friends but by a large amount of people that you have never met and without inducing paranoia, this can highly affect people’s lives. Google+ tried to give their users the option to use Circles in order to allow information to go to particular groups of people which is a great idea but it does seem to be more complicated than it needs to be and with everyone in groups, having to move people around in groups to allow them to get one off updates is somewhat of a pain. Perhaps you want to send an invite to your family members and one of the people in your friends circle – some irritating rearranging seems to be necessary to allow this to occur. In Facebook it is also a little awkward but it is a lot easier to do this than in Google.

Are users too nervous about going over to Google+ as they have become accustomed to the way Facebook deals with privacy and consider it easier to read some extra information when it changes rather than ploughing through new privacy policy even though either site may be beneficial to them?

Information collected by social networking sites has to be taken into consideration also – in the past there have been various situations where phone information has automatically been uploaded to social networking sites – for example, contact numbers being uploaded and therefore being accessible to not only friends but, depending on your privacy settings, to the public at large. Anyone who has ever had 12 unwanted phone calls a day from various different companies (I know whereof I speak on this one) will find it incredible how they get an ex-directory number but with these privacy loopholes it allows information to leak out that should remain private to the user.

Privacy is a very important issue but it needs to be less complicated or the methods of privacy need to be implemented more transparently to avoid users embarrassing themselves by the wrong people reading their posts or having their phone numbers automatically added to their profiles.

Do users want to split their interaction with work colleagues and friends in one place?

One of the features that can be used easily in Google+ is the use of Circles to ring fence work colleagues into a ‘Work’ circle to allow better divided communication between work and social. For example, Journalists can keep their work contacts and social contacts together in one handy place as well as having easy access to Google News and other valuable resources. Facebook does have groups that are just as useful but there are also a lot of other well established sites where users can keep their Education history, Employment history and work colleague contacts and so even though Google+ provides these things in one place, perhaps they are losing out on users who are choosing to keep their interactions with work as far away from social networking as possible – perhaps people want to keep this separate for good reasons?

Is it the marketing and exposure of the two products?

The large majority of people have heard of Facebook regardless of whether they have used it in the past or present but this does not appear to be the same for Google+, as a quick poll of a few friends and relatives seemed to highlight. This seems odd as they are both high profile companies but with associated media around Facebook, Google+ appears to have become lost in the melee so is advertising needed to draw people back to the product? As changes are made to Google+ and the application matures, it will be even more important to get users on board and even as a very regular internet user; people may just not be reminded of Google+ existence. Perhaps Google+ needs more of a boost to get it firmly imprinted in the minds of users? Perhaps the recent controversy regarding privacy will provide a wider audience and more publicity therefore leading to more users?

Or, do we just dislike change?

If you’re anything like me, getting old and curmudgeonly, the idea that I may have to change my online habits to accept changes to the application that I have been successfully been using for years is something of a daunting one – and I have a reasonably lengthy history in the software industry so by rights I should be entirely used to it by now. A change to the navigation or to the privacy settings makes me feel a wee bit twitchy – mainly because I won’t be able to autopilot my way around it and the adjustment, while small, is still irksome.

The other reason I abhor change in software is that, explaining it to my parents, parents-in-law, elderly relatives, people at bus stops etc becomes somewhat of a chore. “But it worked  before, why did they change it?” they cry and sometimes I am inclined to agree, but without change and the evolution of software, we wouldn’t have the lovable social networking sites that we have today. Change is a necessary thing, it is not something that everyone likes but it is necessary for improvement. Software developers and designers know this – the next revision could have your users deserting you in droves, particularly if the product is free and the alternative is…erm…also free.

Things change in Facebook from time to time and lots of people write scathing comments about the changes but generally it settles down and within a few weeks you can’t remember what the fuss was about. Considering the software is free to use, most people seem to accept that you can’t please all of the people all of the time and the changes take place despite pockets of opposition – so perhaps we are not as resistant to change as we like to think?

So the idea of transferring your photos, finding your friends, losing all of those links and updates you have posted over the years, having to learn another way of interacting with the site etc to transfer over to another social networking application may just be too daunting to people at the moment. Perhaps as time goes by, the users of Google+ will reanimate and start using it more? After all, as it is publicly under 1 year old it still has time to mature and become something to challenge the mighty Facebook in time; maybe it just needs the right model to capture the public’s heart.

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