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Google+ and the curse of instant distribution

I was reading today’s NYT article on Google+’s new redesign and found myself continually puzzled by the key metric Google continues to report as the success of their new social product: Registered Users.

In the very first sentence, Vic Gundotra writes:

More than 170 million people have upgraded to Google+, enjoying new ways to share in Search, Gmail, YouTube and lots of other places.

The use of registered users is a vanity metric, and reflects how easily Google can cross-sell any new product to their core base of 1 billion uniques per month. What it doesn’t reflect, however, is the actual health of the product.

Ultimately, this misalignment of metrics is due to the curse of instant distribution. Because Google can cross-sell whatever products they want against their billion unique users, it’s easy to grade on that effort. Plus it’s a big number, who doesn’t love a big number?

Google+ should be measured on per user metrics
Here’s what metrics are more important instead: Given the Google+ emphasis on Circles and Hangouts, you’d think that the best metrics to use would evaluate the extent to which these more personal and more authentic features are being used. These would include metrics like:

  • Shares per user per day (especially utilizing the Circles feature)
  • Friends manually added to circles per user per day (not automatically!)
  • Minutes of engagement per user per day
And if there’s too much noise with all the millions of user onboarding to Google+ recently, then create a new bucket of “activated” users who comprise your best and more engaged userbase, and just calculate for those guys.

Point is, the density and frequency of relationships within small circles ought to matter more than the aggregate counts on the network. As I’ve blogged about before, you use metrics to reflect the strategy you already have in place, and based on the Google+’s focus on authentic circles of friends, you’d think the metrics would focus on the density of friendships and activities, and not the aggregate numbers.

The curse of instant distribution
Every new product for a startup goes through a gauntlet to reach product/market fit, and then traction. In the real world, product quality and the ability to solve a real problem for people ends up correlating with your ability to distribute the product. Google+ is blessed, and cursed, with the ability to sidestep this completely. They are able to onboard hundreds of millions of users without having great product/market fit, and can claim positive metrics without going through the gauntlet of really making their product work.

Adam D’Angelo of Quora (and previously CTO of Facebook) wrote this insightful commentary regarding Google Buzz a while back:

Why have social networks tied to webmail clients failed to gain traction?
Personally I think this is mostly because the social networking products built by webmail teams haven’t been very good. Even Google Buzz, which is way ahead of the attempts built into Yahoo Mail and Hotmail, has serious problems: the connections inside it aren’t meaningful, profiles and photos are second class, comments bump items to the top of the feed meaning there’s old stuff endlessly getting recycled, and the whole product itself is a secondary feature accessible only through a click below the inbox, which hasn’t gotten it enough distribution to kick off and sustain conversations.

I’m pretty sure that if Google, Microsoft, or Yahoo had cloned Facebook almost exactly (friends, profiles, news feed, photos) and integrated it well into their webmail product, that it could have taken off (before Facebook got to its current scale; at this point it will be hard for any competitor, even with a massive distribution channel pushing it).

So I think this question is really, why are social networks that webmail teams build always bad? Here’s my guess:

  • The team building the social network knows that they’re going to get a huge amount of distribution via the integration and so they aren’t focused on growth and making a product that people will visit on their own.
  • Integrating any two big products is really hard.
  • Any big webmail provider is going to have a big organization behind it, and lots of politics and compromises probably make it difficult to execute well.
  • Teams that work on webmail products have gotten good at building a webmail product, and haven’t selected for the skills and culture that a team that grows around building a social network will have.

(The bolding is from me). I couldn’t agree more with this answer. I think a key lesson behind the recent success of products like Instagram and Pinterest is that there’s still a lot of room in the market for great social products to take off- but the emphasis has to be on the product rather than the superficial act of onboarding a lot of new users into Google+.

Ultimately, it comes down to how realistic the Google+ folks are in looking at their metrics. If they drink their own kool-aid and think they have product/market fit when it’s in fact the traction is solely dependent on the power of their distribution channels, they may never get their product working.

On the other hand, if they have a balanced view on their metrics and know they don’t have product/market fit yet, then they have a fighting chance. Unfortunately, I think the changes they’ve made to the product recently are more efforts to optimize, rather than fundamental improvements to the product. I think Google+ needs much bigger changes to make it as engaging as the best social products.

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