Google+ and the Slow Boat to Scale
Jul 5, 2011 5:00 AM PT
Shortly after launching the beta of its Google+ social network last week, Google slammed the shutters down. Like many new Google offerings, Google+ is, for the time being, accessible only by invitation. But after distributing invites rather liberally for a day or so, Google pulled back, citing "insane demand."
It's unclear when Google will kick its invitation giveaway back into full gear, but in the mean time, wannabe Google+ users have gone to great lengths to find active invitations, sometimes even scouting eBay for sales.
What happened? Did Google underestimate the response to Google+? Was it caught flat-footed? Could its engineers have discovered a horrible flaw that would result in major embarrassment, leading management to call a halt?
Google, not unexpectedly, tried to put the best face on the issue.
"We launched Google+ in a field trial in order to test the product and gather more feedback," Google spokesperson Katie Watson told TechNewsWorld.
"As part of the field trial, we may open and close Google+ to new users at any time," Watson continued. "We're thrilled so many people are interested in trying out a new approach to online sharing."
High-Tech Muscle at the Googleplex
Google certainly can close down a trial project at any time it wants. But isn't one day a smidgen too short a timeline?
So maybe Google was swamped by the crowds flocking to Google+. Or maybe someone did discover a potentially embarrassing problem in the service and wanted it fixed before anyone else was allowed inside.
Since Google has multiple data centers with gigajillions of servers and enough network capacity to offer to build and test ultra high-speed broadband networks in some cities in the United States, it would take some mighty big crowds to swamp its systems.
Google "have solid infrastructure to handle search queries all around the world, and I don't think they have a culture of being afraid of embarrassment," Jia Wu, a senior analyst at Strategy Analytics, told TechNewsWorld.
"They're just trying to prevent hidden problems and improve the service before a large-scale launch," Wu added.
Remembrance of Things Past
If so, that would be a first for Google, which is known for its tendency to often put products out into the wild before they've fully matured. So why the sudden attack of coyness?
"It's a lesson they learned from the Google Buzz rollout," Wu suggested.
Since social network services have a lot to do with users' personal information and privacy, a large-scale launch could lead to problems Google didn't expect, just like the Google Buzz backlash, Wu told TechNewsWorld.
Google wishes to "avoid the PR snafus that came with Buzz," opined Greg Sterling, founding principal of Sterling Market Intelligence.
Google Buzz, which was launched in February of 2010, was an attempt to create a social network around Gmail. Among other things, it publicly shared details of users' contacts. Buzz was quickly and thoroughly hammered over privacy issues.
Caution or Marketing Savvy?
Is Google perhaps being overly cautious with its approach to launching the Google+ service?
Slamming the doors shut on the Google+ beta one day after launching it is perhaps contradictory to the whole point of social networking, which is to reach as many people as possible.
"I think the ... approach gets in their way of having a full-scale test," said Carl Howe, director of anywhere consumer research at the Yankee Group.
"It's possible that Google is being too cautious, but it also has a lot more to lose if it gets it wrong," Howe added. "Google's phrase for the term 'excess caution' may simply be 'adult management,'" he added.
"Speed is important," Wu said. "But after making multiple unsuccessful attempts, it's more critical for Google to get this right than to do it swiftly but run the risk of failure."
On the other hand, perhaps restricting subscriptions to Google+ could incidentally pay off with a marketing benefit.
"Scarcity helps boost demand, which Google is now seeing," Sterling Market Intelligence's Sterling told TechNewsWorld. "I don't think the [Google+] rollout strategy will backfire."
What is Google+, Anyhow?
The Google+ Project is "real-life sharing rethought for the Web," the project's website reads.
Sharing is "awkward. Even broken," and Google aims to fix that, the site pontificates. The idea is to "bring the nuance and richness of real-life sharing to software" by including users, their relationships and their interests.
Google+ consists of various features, including Circles, Sparks, Hangouts, Mobile and Huddle.
Circles lets users create different circles of friends with whom they share different things. Sharing the same thing with everybody is "scary" and "insensitive," the site asserts.
Sparks is, in essence, an online sharing engine that delivers a content feed from across the Internet on any topic users want, in more than 40 languages.
You can think of Hangouts as the virtual equivalent of your local watering hole. It combines casual meetups with live multi-person video so users can spend time with their circles face to face over the Web.
Mobile is what it says -- using GPS, cameras and messaging for mobile sharing.
Huddle is a group messaging capability that keeps everyone in a particular circle up to date.
Google+ vs. Facebook
Comparisons to Facebook abound.
"I think Google+ is really just Facebook for those who actually have a more nuanced view of privacy than 'little' or 'none,'" the Yankee Group's Howe said.
"I like the idea of Google+ to make it easier to establish subgroups," Andrew Eisner, director of community and content at Retrevo, told TechNewsWorld.
"It's difficult to do that on Facebook," he added.
"Google+ is aimed at Facebook. It's coordinating the communications, which is what Facebook's trying to do," Tole Hart, a senior analyst at the Yankee Group, stated.
"Facebook hasn't really done a whole lot with communications in groups," Tole told TechNewsWorld.
"It turns out there's some ambivalence toward Facebook among the early adopters of Google+," Sterling Market Intelligence's Sterling said. "People like the group and privacy controls that Google+ offers."