Google+ is five years old today, but you could be forgiven for neither knowing nor caring. Chances are (unless you punch the clock at the Googleplex) you don’t use Google+, and even if you do work there, you probably sneak looks at Facebook in the same way kids used to hide Playboys under their beds.
Truth is, Google+ is a nonentity in the social world. Sure, when it launched five years ago, Mark Zuckerberg feared it would be the biggest threat to his Facebook empire, but, in the annals of tech, Google+ turned out to be a false alarm, a niche product that just never found its way in the world. Though only five today, it exists with a kind of preteen awkwardness, alone in a crowd, without even the benefit of acne to help it stand out.
Yes, people do use it. Google+, according to DMR, apparently has 300 million users, which is a nice healthy number for sure. But when was the last time you used Google+ to communicate or run your business? With all those users, many of whom are simply signed up through other Google apps, you would think Google+ would have the mindshare that Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or any other social platform has. But it doesn’t. Even its own users don’t really use it. The average monthly time spent on Google+ is just seven minutes, according to DMR. Most Americans spend more than 20 minutes on Facebook per day. You probably spend more time reading an actual printed newspaper in America each month than you do using Google+.
If you’re a business, it is a nonentity, as well. While Google+ claims to have 13 percent of the small business market, and every so often marketing gurus trot out reasons you should use it, it really isn’t a useful business tool for most entrepreneurs or most business leaders. It exists, which in an entrepreneurial world is indeed an accomplishment, but it neither thrives nor shines.
So, on this birthday, it’s important to show a positive, and it’s this: Google+ is a physical sign that even the big boys get it wrong sometime. Google, for all its success in search and some other areas, falls flat in many of the attempts it makes. (I assume, for instance, that you’re not reading this story through Google Glass.)
But that doesn’t mean it stops trying. The Google parent, Alphabet, is indeed a laboratory for crazy ideas, some of which, like in life sciences, could save your life someday. Most of what it tries will fail, but Google has enough of a culture of failure that the virtue is in the attempt not the outcome. Many products, Google+ among them, fail to reach their potential. But I have no doubt that the folks at Google view every product or service the way Nelson Mandela used to look at failure: You never really fail. You either succeed or you learn.
Related: Why You Should Be on Google+
There’s a little bit of Google+ in everyone’s business, the big initiative that seemed so right in engineering, that seemed like enough of a game-changer that it made our competitors lose sleep, but never got the real brass ring of business: customer adoption. That Google+ exists today, and made it to half a decade, isn’t a testament to its strength as a product, but rather as a symbol of the tremendous life-support infrastructure that a company with the size, scale and cash of Alphabet can bring to bear. Google+ never had to hit a home run because Google paid to have it start on third base. If this service launched at any other company, I’d bet we would be sitting shiva for the concept, or, more likely, commemorating the third anniversary of its demise.
But that’s another plus for Google. Most companies would have shuttered this product a long time ago, but Google, for all its size, likes to remain loyal to the communities that show loyalty to the company. That’s a good lesson, too, for business leaders. Google+ is a gift to the few people who are truly committed to it, a loss leader to create a halo for all the other products the Alphabet/Google industrial complex wants to belch out. What it lacks in value as a product, it more than makes up for in its potential for a marketing vehicle.
Whether a sign that it’s Ok to stumble or a symbol of the value in keeping existing communities happy, Google+ lives, as improbable as that might sound. So blow out five candles and wonder what might have been (or even just try to figure out what Google+ is). Birthdays are milestones to be remembered, even for a product worth forgetting.