Google+ has never gotten the respect its creator hoped, let alone gained much ground on its supposed target, Facebook. Now, Google’s attempt at a social network has lost its leader and chief evangelist, Vic Gundotra, who announced today that he’s leaving Google after almost eight years at the company.
Gundotra, a former Microsoft executive, gave no clue to his next steps. His own post, musing on the death of his wife’s uncle and her father’s attitude toward life, implied that he was simply ready for a new challenge after a career at Google that you’d have to consider a success. Google+ failed to make a dent in Facebook, but it’s a solid service with a loyal following and, probably most of all, a powerful source of data for Google’s advertising machine. And Gundotra’s previous work courting developers for Android obviously paid off bigtime, as the mobile software remains the only credible rival to Apple’s iOS.
Still, Gundotra’s departure, effective immediately, is rather abrupt, despite recent rumors that he was interviewing for other jobs. There is speculation that he didn’t get along with CEO Larry Page’s “L Team” of top execs and with some employees who called him the “Victator,” though Page himself provided a quick bit of praise for Gundotra today. Other sources at Google have told me that Gundotra, known for his very public profile and more charm than many Google executives, was resented by some inside Google for self-promotion and a tendency to run over other execs in his drive to get things done.
What matters more going forward is what will happen to Google+, which has suffered most of all from a confusing vision of its core purpose. Gundotra and his lieutenant, Bradley Horowitz (who mysteriously was not chosen as his successor), have taken pains to define Google+ as not a social network, but some sort of social glue for all of Google’s services. But their insistence, coupled with iffy numbers of people supposedly using it, always rang a bit hollow, so Google+ continues to be compared to Facebook. And as a place to share your life with friends as people do on Facebook, it’s clearly a failure.
Given Gundotra’s departure, a shakeup of Google+ and Google’s social strategy generally seems almost certain. Already, the group may have been reorganized, according to the Wall Street Journal. That doesn’t mean it’s dead. For one, Page himself has always been its biggest evangelist and shows little sign of losing interest in it.
Even more, Google+, with 300 million members, is actually a success in a much less public way for Google. Most of those 300 million people may never visit the Google+ site itself, since they’re counted merely by signing into any Google service. But by signing in, they provide an invaluable source of data on real people that then can be associated with all their behavior on other Google services. That identification has always been the secret to Facebook’s still accelerating success in advertising.
But the leadership change does mean that Google–in particular David Besbris, a VP of engineering that re/code, which originally broke Gundotra’s departure, said would take over Google+ (and which Google just confirmed)– must find a way to define Google+’s essential purpose. Especially as even Facebook appears to realize its original vision of social networking is nearing a peak and buying up pieces of the future, Google would do best to quit trying, even in the backs of its leaders’ minds, to become a social network like Facebook.
But here’s the thing: This could actually be an ideal time for Google to forge a completely new vision of social networking and communications, rather than keep trying to explain what Google+ isn’t. Indeed, at a time when even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is talking up the virtues of private communications, Google+ could position itself as already well on the way to this new world of more nuanced online communications.
That won’t be easy for a company that’s already a prime target for people worried about incursions into our private lives. But the very architecture of Google+, in particular its Circles feature that allows people to follow others without being forced to become friends with all the freight that carries on Facebook, could be a place to start distinguishing itself in a clearer way.
Then there’s Hangouts, the video chat feature that is probably the one bona fide killer app of Google+. They’re still way easier to set up, with anyone you want, than Facebook’s Skype-powered hybrid. Realizing this, Google has been integrating other services such as Messenger and Google Voice into a fuller-featured Hangouts. There’s more opportunity to build on these varied communications capabilities–ideally providing distinct, standalone capabilities rather than trying to corral them all as part of an amorphous Google+ service. (In fact, TechCrunch now reports that’s what’s likely to happen, though it’s surely still in flux.)
It’s a stretch to think that after years of continuing to trail behind a raft of surging social networking companies Google+ can suddenly engineer itself into the next InstaFaceApp, or whatever. It may end up working best for Google if it dumps or at least deemphasizes the tainted Google+ brand in favor of more granular services and apps–as Facebook itself is already starting to do.
Gundotra’s departure may be a blow to Google’s social ambitions for now. But it also could be an opportunity to start anew. And it’s an opportunity Google can’t afford to waste this time.