The Industry

It Took a Major Security Flaw for Google to Finally Shut Down Google Plus, the Web’s Least Useful Social Network

A Google sign.
Google Plus was supposed to be a big challenge to Facebook when it launched in 2011. Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

Google Plus is no more, but it took more than being the least impactful social-media platform on the web to kill it. Google on Monday announced that it would shut down its social network after the Wall Street Journal reported that the company did not disclose a security vulnerability in the spring that exposed private data from hundreds of thousands of Google Plus accounts. Google patched the bug in March. In a blog post this week detailing the decision, Google vice president of engineering Ben Smith points to concerns with data privacy and failure to achieve “broad consumer or developer adoption” as reasons for the shutdown. Smith writes, “The consumer version of Google+ currently has low usage and engagement: 90 percent of Google+ user sessions are less than five seconds.”

Google Plus’ struggles with user engagement were not a recent trend but rather a defining characteristic during its seven ailing years of existence. Launched in 2011, Google Plus was heralded as yet another attempt by the search giant to take on Facebook after launching a series of unsuccessful social media sites, namely Orkut, Google Wave, and Google Buzz. At the time, the likes of NPR and the New York Times pointed to Google Plus’ emphasis on “circles,” a feature that allowed people to compartmentalize their friends into different groups, as a potential game-changer that could finally allow Google to enter the growing market for social media advertising.

By 2012, however, it was clear that Google Plus was having trouble keeping users on its platform for long. A much-cited article in the Wall Street Journal reported that people were spending three minutes a month using Google Plus, leading the paper to refer to the social network as a “virtual ghost town.” (Though three minutes a month would seem to be pretty respectable by the platform’s current numbers.) Over the next two years, people would revolt against Google’s attempts to forcibly integrate Google Plus’ features into its other platforms like Gmail and YouTube. As Slate’s Will Oremus wrote of a plan in 2014 to allow anyone with a Google Plus account to send emails to Gmail users, “Google just announced a big change that, as far as I can tell, no one was asking for except perhaps the people who run Google Plus, its failed Facebook clone ubiquitous online identity service.” The departure of Vic Gundotra, the senior vice president who headed Google Plus, that same year further underscored the platform’s troubles.

Deathly metaphors became ubiquitous in media coverage of Google Plus from then on, particularly the notion of the site essentially being a zombie platform. Over the past year, Google has also found evidence of foreign misuse of Google Plus, though it was dwarfed by the far more extensive meddling campaigns on Facebook and Twitter. Google announced in August that it had found 13 accounts allegedly associated with Iranian disinformation campaigns. The Hill also found that pro-ISIS propaganda had been flourishing on dozens of pages.

Despite its failure to catch on and various other stumbles, it took a major security stumble for Google to finally put its Facebook challenger to rest—an unlikely close for a Google product that never made a bang until it went out with one.