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By Kim Speier

Google+: Worth It or a Waste of Time? | Social Media TodayThere’s been a lot of talk about Google+ recently, and some pretty negative talk at that. With Facebook’s announcement that their user base reached 1.5 billion people, Twitter’s efforts to revitalize their audience, and Snapchat and Instagram’s rise to social media dominance, we’re left scratching our heads as to where Google+ fits into the mix.

So I went to the only logical place to figure this all out – Google, of course. As I started to type in the words “Is Google+,” the first autofill suggestion led to the query “Is Google+ Dead?” After clicking on that suggestion, my browser was filled with dozens of articles about the topic:

“Is Google+ Really Walking Dead?”
“Inside the Sad, Expensive Failure of Google+”
“Google+ Isn’t Dead. It’s Just in a Coma and on Life Support”
Probably not the type of press they’re looking for.
There’s no question that Google+ isn’t the social media channel that Facebook and Snapchat are, but that was never the intention. It was meant to be an overarching “social layer” to Google’s many entities so that users could connect and converse with others that share a common interest. So when we try to compare it to these other networks, Google+ tends to be portrayed negatively right off the bat.

In recent months, Google+ has undergone a series of changes to better cater to its audience and provide a more user-friendly experience. Let’s take a closer look at these developments and try to figure out whether we’re closer to Google+’s funeral or resurrection.

I’ll admit that I’ve thrown stones at Google+ from time to time. When it first launched in 2011, many consumers (including myself) simply viewed it as an attempt to compete with Facebook and tap into their market share. On the surface, the differences between the networks seemed negligible or nonexistent.

One of the biggest gripes with Google+ from the start was that if you already had a Google account set up to use Gmail, YouTube, etc., you automatically had a Google+ profile created for you. This has left us with some seriously confusing and misleading numbers when it comes to figuring out how many people are actually active on the network.

Technically speaking Google+ has more than 2.5 billion profiles, a billion more than Facebook. However, 90% of these have never been used. A good portion of this group likely consists of users with accounts that were created by default because they have a Google login. Others joined when it first launched, checked it out a couple of times, and then went back to their other preferred networks. And then, somewhere in here, there’s a group of loyal users posting regularly and contributing to all those +1s.

So when you get down to how many of these individuals are actually active on the network, it’s hard to say. A lot of content shared on Google+ is done privately, whether with an individual user or a designated “circle” that the user has created, and that makes it difficult to track. According to Google they have estimated the number of monthly active users to be 300 million, which is a little less than Twitter. But there’s definitely a gray area here.

From a business perspective, a common criticism is that you are required to have a Google+ page in order to take advantage of the local SEO benefits associated with Google My Business. Google My Business houses company information like hours of operation, locations, industry, contact information, and more, and is shared across Google’s entities (like Google Maps). This way, anyone searching for your company or industry can find cohesive information and be directed to your website or physical location.

Google+: Worth It or a Waste of Time? | Social Media Today

This requirement is a way to encourage brands to be active on Google+ since you have to have an account set up for geographic-based searches anyway. While some brands have taken advantage of this, many more added their information for SEO purposes and never touched their account again. It’s hard to say whether or not this has proven to be a successful strategy for Google because their metrics are so diluted.

In response to the criticism and evident dominance of other social media platforms, Google realized that something had to give. We started to see a transition in Google+ when they began unbundling some key features and creating separate applications. The first was Google Photos in May of 2015, which serves as a free management and storage platform for all of the photos backed up to your Google account.

A couple months later, Hangouts was removed from the Google+ platform as well. Users no longer have to login to access messages or calls, which has allowed the tool to rise in popularity and compete with comparable messaging apps like WhatsApp.

They also removed YouTube comments from users’ Google+ feeds to keep conversations separate and not bog down profiles with unnecessary posts. Originally, any time you commented on a YouTube video, the content would then show up in your Google+ Stream. This was not popular among users, so the feature was eliminated.

It was quickly realized that despite efforts to make Google+ a place for users to accomplish practically anything online, it was overwhelming to have that many capabilities in one place. As of late, their focus has been on creating a better place for conversations to happen around a mutual interest rather than a one-stop shop approach.

Enter: communities and collections.

After unbundling several tools, the site was officially relaunched as the “New Google+” on November 17, 2015 to promote this new image and focus on the communities and collections features. Recognizing that this is no longer the social space of 2011, the platform was redesigned with a mobile-first mentality so that it would be more compatible across devices, whether you’re using their app or a web browser.

Google+ Communities were introduced not long after the network’s inception, and through their recent revamp have brought vitality back to user’s streams. They serve as a place for people to learn more about a particular topic or interest, so rather than mindlessly scrolling through your feed, you can take a more targeted approach to search and entertainment.

It’s now estimated that there are 1.2 million “joins” to communities every day, so Google+ may have finally found its niche. Understanding that its users are simply looking for a platform to share ideas and connect with others who have similar interests could give it the push it needs to bounce back from the persistent rumors that it’s on its way out.

In May 2015, Google+ Collections was launched as a place for users to group posts of interest by a particular topic, kind of like Pinterest boards. They can be shared publicly, privately, or with a designated circle, and posts appear in your stream with a link to the relevant collection so you can check out similar articles and videos. Once you create a collection, a new tab will appear on your profile so that your followers can choose to follow any that are of interest to them.

Google+: Worth It or a Waste of Time? | Social Media Today

With all of these changes, will Google+ be able to rejuvenate its existing audience and encourage others to give it a try? Google has always been a company that’s looked to its user base for guidance and suggestions, and they’ve treated their social presence no differently. They understand that they tried to do too much at once, and users weren’t looking for that comprehensive of an experience.

By separating some tools, enhancing current ones, and pursuing new ventures, Google+ has almost completely rebranded itself. From the look of the site to the purpose of having a profile in the first place, this ‘dying’ platform might actually start to see some growth.

While there isn’t a formal advertising program available yet, businesses can definitely take advantage of communities and collections from a branding perspective. They are targeted groups of consumers with a demonstrated desire to learn more about a particular topic or interest. If companies can establish a presence within these tools and share content that its members are interested in checking out, they could drive more traffic to their blog and website. These are areas where purchase intent has the potential to be very high, so by brands getting involved, they could tap into a previously uncharted market of qualified leads.

When it comes to Google+ internationally, they’ve found great success in countries that are relatively newer to the digital space. In comparison to about 20% of U.S. consumers being active on Google+, nearly 40% of people in India, Thailand, Mexico, and other countries visit the site regularly. And those that are active on the network are dedicated to it, with over half of active users visiting Google+ at least once per day and 78% visiting once a week. These metrics are comparable to Facebook’s engagement level, so even though they don’t have the size of Facebook’s audience, these measures are too significant to ignore.

So where do we go from here? I think over the next year the picture will become much clearer as these changes become more widely accepted and utilized. Will a more targeted approach bring back some early adopters or is the social space too cluttered, even for a company like Google, to take part?

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