Pop quiz for small business owners: When is the last time you updated your company’s Google+ page?
On the heels of the Google I/O announcement today of a refresh of the Google+ platform, just as Google+ prepares to turn two years old, Reuters reported that major brands like Domino’s and McDonald’s have largely ignored the social network to date, preferring instead to focus on the big guns of Facebook and Twitter. The time when this could be brushed off as simple growing pains is rapidly coming to an end. No longer an upstart, it now begs the question of whether the service will ever truly compete in the social media market or whether it will ultimately go the way of Orkut.
The numbers aren’t encouraging: There are 135 million active users on Google+ vs. 1.1 billion on Facebook, with the average user spending under 7 minutes per month on the site, vs. more than 6 hours per month on Facebook.
Google+ is the search giant’s third or fourth foray into social networking (depending on whether you count Google Friend Connect), but it is clearly its most ambitious. Billed as a site that “aims to make sharing on the web more like sharing in real life,” businesses were more enticed by the vague promises (or rumors) that a presence on Google+ would lead to better placement in Google’s search results. That alone seemed to merit investing heavily in making Google+ a rich and regularly updated environment.
So what happened?
For starters, confusion and lots of it. Launched in conjunction with the +1 button, it was unclear how +1 votes interacted with search results and Google+ pages. While +1 was originally plastered all over the web (including the ability to give a +1 vote to search results you thought were especially relevant), today you’ll find that +1 has largely vanished. In part that’s because +1 was folded into Google+, and Google has completely scrubbed +1 from search results, replacing it with a weird system that indicates when a certain piece of content was written by a Google+ user.
Even if you get a handle on the above, you’ll find that it was largely focused on individual users, not businesses. But with the introduction of Google+ Pages in November 2011, things actually got even more confusing. For many businesses, especially local ones with a physical presence, Google+ Pages help to provide an extra place where potential customers could get the basics about your business, including your location and hours of operation. But wait, how is that different from Google Places? Do you need to have both a Place and a Page? (Short answer: Yes, although numerous reports have claimed otherwise, just adding to the confusion.)
Once you have a Google+ Page set up, then what? Does keeping it “fresh” really help with anything? Even search industry experts are divided on whether Google+ makes a difference for SEO, and other complaints cited in the aforementioned Reuters piece are legion: The site isn’t frequented by target customers. There are only so many hours in the day that one can deal with social networking and Facebook gets the priority. Google+ doesn’t offer as many “creative options.” In other words, Google+ is ugly. Google at least seems to have gotten the message on this front, announcing today at the Google I/O conference that Google+ was being completely redesigned.
And there’s also the issue that, two years on, you still can’t create a Google+ Page for adult-oriented businesses, including those involved in the alcohol industry. Try to create one and Google gives you an error: “Our product is not available for you yet. Please come back later.” Sorry, but on Google+, this Bud’s not for you.
For small business owners, what to do with all of this information, then? You can be forgiven if you find Google+ to be a confusing waste of time, but it still makes sense to create a Page for your company and keep it reasonably up to date with at least one post every week or two. Why? Because even if Google+ doesn’t do anything for overall SEO, its at least one more place that helps with your overall visibility on the web.
After all, even a ghost town gets a visitor or two from time to time.
Christopher Null is a veteran technology and business journalist. He contributes regularly to TechHive, PCWorld, and Wired, and operates the websites Drinkhacker and Film Racket. Disclosure: He also writes for Hewlett-Packad's marketing website TechBeacon.