GooglePlus Today_TheDefinitiveGuide
“Google+ is crucial for SEO.”

“No one’s using Google+.”

“Google+ is the only social network worth your time.”

Rumors about Google+ have been swirling ever since April 2014, when Vic Gundotra, the service’s high-profile co-creator, announced that he was leaving Google after nearly eight years.

So what’s really going on in the Googleplex? Is Google+ worth your time as a user? A marketer? Will it even exist a year from now? We decided to spend a good amount of time trying to pry into the black box.

Where the rumors started

The day Gundotra announced his departure, TechCrunch sent the gossip mill into overdrive with an article titled Google+ Is Walking Dead. TechCrunch reported Google+ talent was getting diverted to other teams and moved to different buildings on campus. Google products would no longer be required to integrate with Google+. Google was giving up its dreams of overtaking Facebook and Twitter to become the next big thing in social.

Basically: the end was near.

Google repeatedly denied these accounts, both in the TechCrunch article and in the months that followed. “I have no idea where these rumors are coming from, to be honest with you,” Google’s new head of social media David Besbris said in an October interview with Re/code. (Besbris was a director of engineering before taking over Google+ and the rest of social after Gundotra’s departure.) The Google+ team was still working hard and hadn’t been “booted”; they’d chosen to move to a newer place on campus. “We’re in social for the long haul,” Besbris said.

Is Google+ a ghost town?

Google may be committed to success in social, but does Google+ have the user base to pull it off? In his Re/code interview, Besbris begged off answering the question on everyone’s mind: “I don’t want to talk about numbers.”

Statista reports that Google+ is the third most popular social media site in the U.S. when measured by market share of visits, though with 3.85%, it lags far behind Facebook (56.5%) and YouTube (20.58%). When compared to social sites around the world and measured by active users, Google+ comes in seventh place with 343 million active users, behind Facebook (1,366 billion), WhatsApp (600 million), and others.

All that doesn’t sound bad enough to forebode failure. But the proportion of Google+ profiles to active users isn’t promising, and recent data suggests it may be worse than expected. In January, Business Insider reported that “despite billions of sign-ups, hardly anyone does anything” on Google+. Of the 2.2 billion Google+ profiles, only 9% have any publicly posted content and only 0.2-0.3% made public posts in the first few weeks of 2015.

This doesn’t include privately-posted content, but it does include comments made through Google+ on YouTube videos, one of the biggest sources of activity. Writes Edward Morbius, who compiled the original data, “We’ve got a grand spanking total of 24 profiles out of 7,875 whose [January] 2015 post activity isn’t YouTube comments but Google+ posts. That’s a 0.3% rate of all profile pages, going back to our 2.2 billion profiles. No wonder Dave Besbris (Google+ boss) doesn’t want to talk about numbers.”

Things don’t look good with the younger generation either, at least anecdotally: “I personally don’t know anyone who uses Google+,” college student Andrew Watts writes on Medium.

But others disagree with the basic premise of using volume of active users to measure value. In his Re/code interview, Besbris lays out the “biggest misconception” of Google+:

“People underestimate the connection Google+ has with its users around interests. I think people come to Google+ with this expectation that it’s going to be Google’s attempt to do some other product—we’re doing this compete with somebody… We don’t approach products in that we need to go into [certain] industries because somebody else is doing something important. We go into this industry because we want to make users happy… This is how Google has always done stuff. There were search engines before Google, we just did it differently. There were email systems before Gmail came out, we just approached the problem differently. We had a different way we thought we could solve the core use cases [on social.]”

 

Others share this philosophy. In an article published soon after Gundotra’s departure, Wired argues that Besbris himself is actually “a nice metaphor for where the service should go. Besbris isn’t Gundotra. He’s not someone with a big public profile. But he serves a purpose. That’s what Google+ should be.”

Richard Devine of Android Central agrees. “As a frequent visitor to Google+, I can’t help but think that anyone who really, genuinely, actively uses Google+ on a daily basis would think it’s dying… Inside Google+ there is a thriving community of thinkers, writers, photographers, and so much more.” Google+’s active users may not come close to comparing to Facebook’s, he says, but that’s not such a bad thing. Facebook and Twitter have “become less about interacting with people, more about selling you something.” Google+, meanwhile, “has been the forum for some of the best quality discussions anywhere on the internet.”

But what if you want to use Google+ to sell things?

For marketers, though, Google+ is a little like the boss’s son. He may come in late, he may not get much done, but he still manages to keep his job and sometimes even get promoted. In the same way, many marketers have long stayed loyal to Google+ to avoid disrupting the almighty father that is Search.

But with all the uncertainty and changes, many brands are unsure whether prioritizing Google+ in their social media and content marketing strategies is worth the effort. One of the biggest upheavals came in August 2014, when Google announced it was dropping Authorship, a prominent project that provided a way to link content with a Google+ profile. Forbes explains, “The idea [behind Authorship] was to influence page rankings based on the reputation of its authors by using digital signatures. So, trusted agents would receive a higher score than someone who hadn’t yet earned their stripes.”

According to Search Engine Land, Google ended Authorship for two main reasons: low adoption rates by authors and low value for searchers. Content creators weren’t using Authorship enough (or were using it incorrectly), while searchers didn’t tend to click on results with an author more than those without one. The rise of mobile users may also have been a factor: author photos and bylines took up a lot of space on small smartphone screens.

The demise of Authorship was unwelcome news for marketers, and some saw it as a death knell for Google+ as a whole. Without Authorship, the comparative value-add of Google+ for brands seemed much diminished. “… Google+ might be next on the chopping block,” writes TJ McCue in a Forbes article titled Google Authorship Killed: Google+ Next?. “A big part of [Google+’s] draw, it’s promise, was that Google+ was tied to Google Authorship, thereby improving your social rank in search results, if you were producing good content.”

The link between Google+ and SEO

But even without Authorship, activity on Google+ is still important for boosting SEO rankings… right?

Conventional wisdom says yes. A December 2014 report from TrackMaven explains, “In the social media universe, Google+ has a unique marketing advantage: a direct impact on SEO rankings… Google +1s have the highest single correlation with Google search ranking (0.4), higher than the number of Facebook shares (0.34), number of backlinks (0.34) and total Facebook Likes, Shares, and Comments (0.34).”

Numbers like that seem like more than enough to keep a conscientious marketer +1-ing. But in January 2015, Matt Cutts, Google’s head of search spam, released a Youtube video that—depending on one’s point of view—either cemented Google+’s value or further downgraded it.

In the video, Cutts discusses the impact of social signals on Google page rank. Specifically, he says that Google does not take social signals from Facebook or Twitter into account when determining the rank of a web page. This came as a huge surprise to many, given that Cutts confirmed in a 2010 video that Google did use Twitter and Facebook links in rankings. A number of studies also seem to give credence to the strong impact of social signals on search engine rank. (Cutts dismisses this as “correlation, not causation.”)

In the most recent video, Cutts clarifies that Google doesn’t entirely ignore these two social networks: “Facebook and Twitter pages are treated like any other pages in our web index, and so if something occurs on Twitter or occurs on Facebook and we’re able to crawl it then we can return that in our search results.” KISSmetrics’ Chloe Mason Gray extrapolates: “This leads me to think that while the authority of a social account doesn’t impact search rank, links published on social media could be marked as credible back-links and thus influence a page’s rank.”

That’s all well and good for Facebook and Twitter, but what about Google+? Scrupulous viewers noted that Cutts never explicitly mentions Google+ in the video. Some assumed he was lumping all social networks in with those two sites, but many believed his omission was deliberate. Google’s algorithms may not take into account activity on Facebook or Twitter, but that doesn’t mean they don’t incorporate activity on Google+.

Cutts provides two main explanations for Google’s deliberate avoidance of Twitter and Facebook signals, each of which seems to support a different side of the argument. The first reason he cites is the possibility of Google being blocked when crawling: “We had at least one experience when we were blocked for about a month and half” (whether on Facebook or Twitter, he doesn’t specify). Engineers were “leery” about “the idea of doing a lot of special engineering work to try to extract some data from web pages when we might be blocked… in the future.”

There’s no risk of being blocked by your own service. This seems a clear +1 for the argument that Google might still take Google+ signals into account, while ignoring Facebook and Twitter.

But Cutts’s second rationale complicates the issue. The frequency of updates on social media, he says, poses problems for Google, which “samples the web at finite periods of time.” He gives as an example a couple’s relationship status on Facebook, which can be updated at any time. What if Google crawled the Facebook pages of a married couple in a Facebook relationship right before the wife blocked the husband for being abusive, and unlinked their profiles? “It would be unfortunate if… just because we happened to crawl at the exact moment when those two profiles were [still] linked, we started to return pages that we had crawled [then].” Ultimately, Cutts says, “We’re sampling an imperfect web” and engineers are “wary… of trying to extract data when that data might change.”

This is a problem Google would encounter when crawling Google+ pages too: active Google+ users are just as likely to make frequent changes on their profiles. If Google doesn’t want to deliver inaccurate or outdated search results, they’d presumably be just as reticent about taking Google+ social signals into account.

Should marketers bother with Google+?

“I’m not saying not to use Twitter and Facebook,” Cutts says at the end of the video, and we can assume the same goes for Google+. Regardless of whether or how much social signals affect page rank, social media still provides clear benefits: driving visitors, building brands, keeping people up to date. Neil Patel writes, “So, maybe those ‘signals’ we loved so much aren’t working. But so what? Social is still a valuable channel for promotion, content, distribution, virality, and sharing.”

And as the boss’s son, Google+ still maintains advantages. “While some may consider Google+ a non-essential social channel, marketers shouldn’t discount the fact that a company’s Google+ profile is one of the first things a searcher will see (and potentially click on). As such, it pays to have a profile with up-to-date info and engaging content.”

Martin Shervington on Plus Your Business also makes the important point that “not now doesn’t mean not ever.” Innovations in search might mean that Google finds a more effective way to quantify social signals when determining rankings. And one can guess that Google researchers and data scientists would be particularly interested in optimizing Google+.

When thinking about how to use Google+ in the here and now, perhaps a “‘hub and spoke’ view” is appropriate, Jon Reed argues on Diginomica. “Though most companies will not want to focus on Google Plus, it’s easy to add Google Plus Pages to content distribution… With some toil setting up notifications and automating content distribution, you can easily share a good amount of content on Google Plus and check in a few times a week, while testing its viability.”

Marketers can also devise strategies to take advantage of Google+’s unique benefits, such as the specialized communities and in-depth discussions it fosters. Martin Shervington suggests “building relationships on Google+ with people who are already authorities on the subjects for which you want to rank,” creating a community of interested people, and running “community-driven campaigns which will amplify your content.”

The takeaway

Don’t fire the boss’s son just yet. The future of Google+ remains uncertain, but there’s still time for Google to turn it around. For a particular type of user, the network may offer unique social value. For marketers, it’s worth putting at least cursory effort into maintaining a presence—at least until the dust settles and the network’s endgame comes into sharper focus.