It’s hard to grok Google+. On the one hand, since January 2013 Google+ user numbers have made it the undisputed second largest social network. In a similar vein, Mashable just published a breathless Google+ for beginners how-to that calls it “an intriguing network for all users.”
On the other hand, web traffic referrals from Google+ are down. Way down, if this recent Shareaholic report is anywhere near accurate. And web traffic sent is a good indicator of the volume of content that users are actively sharing on Google+. Image-rich social sites like Facebook and Pinterest are leading the pack.
The Google+ user experience make it seem more like a loosely-tied set of features than a cohesive network or service. Sometimes this lack of clarity evokes privacy concerns. The Google+ personalization of www.google.com on your birthday is one relatively benign example. The brand you’ve come to think of as your private search tool is surfacing your own information in a way that it’s easy to mistake as public to all.
More disconcertingly, Google+ seems to automatically display birthdays of Google+ “friends” through the Android browser. The experience below led a colleague to ask, “How did you buy screen space on my phone?”
Perhaps it’s more useful to think of Google+ not as a Facebook or Twitter competitor, but as something entirely different. Charles Arthur in the Guardian described Google+ as the Matrix, “an invisible overlay between you and the web, which watches what you’re doing and logs it and stores that away for future reference.” Sure, there are some compelling social network features, like Hangouts. But in the end, you’re serving up your data in return for getting a suite of services like email and search, and only an occasional, visible glitch will remind you of the Matrix. Given the deep embedding of Google service in many of our lives, it’s a tough tradeoff to walk away from.