The Google+ reality check: How the social network can hang on without its creator

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For better or worse, Google’s Vic Gundotra was entirely responsible for Google+, the company’s struggling social network. When Gundotra announced Thursday that he is leaving the company, the G+ obituaries began pouring in. After all, how can Google+ make it without Gundotra's constant hype?

TechCrunch called Google+ “the walking dead,” a product that would stick around in some zombie-like form but no longer given the resources needed to compete with Facebook. The blog’s sources said Google Hangouts employees will move over to the Android team, and staffers who work on photos could soon follow. Hangouts and photos are two essential parts of the G+ experience—separating them would gut the network entirely. According to the Wall Street Journal, Google+ employees have moved buildings at the Mountain View, Calif. campus so they are now further away from CEO Larry Page’s office.

Gundotra’s departure and the sudden employee reshuffling indicate that the future of Google+ is up in the air. But Google is denying that it plans to change its approach to the network. A company spokesperson told the WSJ that Gundotra’s decision to leave “has no impact on our Google+ strategy—we have an incredibly talented team that will continue to build great user experiences across Google+, Hangouts, and Photos.”

So how can Google+ survive without its champion? First, it’s time for the network to get real.

Photos are the stars of Google+, and the network needs to treat them that way.

Focus on actual Google+ users, not accidental ones

Google has a strange way of counting its active users. If you signed up for Google+—even on accident, which I’m pretty sure is how my account came to be—and click on the red notification bell that appears in Gmail when someone adds you to one of their G+ circles, you’re considered one of the network’s 300 million active users.

But inflating those numbers doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t make Google+ look like a real Facebook rival. Google should stop trying to onboard users by accident and instead cater to its (surprisingly) devoted community. A core group of people really love Google+ and use it to share articles, pen lengthy blog posts, and chat about everything from politics to photography. Google should give those people what they want and stop trying to compete with Facebook.

Enough with the forced integration

One way Google+ has grown its user base is by requiring the use of a G+ login for services like YouTube. That transition continues to be incredibly unpopular, though outrage has died down since the change took place. If Google+ is going to grow into a full-fledged network with hundreds of millions of users, it will have to get there organically. After all, how many social products have successfully scaled by growth-hacking? Very few. (Remember Path? I rest my case.)

Make photos and Hangouts the stars

Hangouts is a core part of Google+ that could compete against Facebook's messaging apps.

The wealth of photo features Google+ has baked in for both professionals and Instagram-level amateurs is impressive—this is where the social network shines. People post photos on Facebook, but they’re not very high quality. Instagram’s editing capabilities are fairly limited compared to what Google+ offers, and Google’s privacy settings let you share with specific groups of people. If Google+ can build out a full-fledged social network for real and aspiring photographers, it will have found the niche it needs to succeed.

Last year, Google+ really ramped up its photo efforts, and at the same time launched Hangouts, which combined the messenger and video chats on Google+ with Google Talk. You can access Hangouts from Gmail, from G+, or from the Hangouts apps for iOS and Android, making it a convenient cross-platform way to chat with friends and family. If Google is going to take on Facebook, it might as well do so with messaging, which is a core focus for the big blue app.

Though Gundotra is taking some of the wind from the Google+ sails with his departure, Google’s social network doesn’t have to collapse. Google just needs to give the people what they want, and what they want is not another Facebook.

This story, "The Google+ reality check: How the social network can hang on without its creator" was originally published by TechHive.

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