There's no shortage of opinions when it comes to parsing the chances of Google+, and with the service now open to all comers there's about to be a lot more, particularly in terms of whether it has what it takes to go mano a mano with Facebook.
Yet with all the handicapping, it's easy to overlook the fact that the primary group that will ultimately make or break Google+ has been largely absent from the conversation, even if they've finally been invited into the sandbox. Namely, the hundreds of millions of regular folks -- the technology "out-crowd," so to speak -- who have turned Facebook into such a goldmine. Without knowing what this massive panoply of high-schoolers, grandparents, people in Ohio, Mafia Wars devotees, and former elementary school classmates think, how accurate can we be in assessing Google+'s chances?
Rather than wait, we decided to ask them.
To do this, we first recruited 52 Facebook users (none of whom were on Google+) to serve as our testers. We divided the testers by age into four groups of 13 testers each. In each group of 13, six testers were male and seven were female. The breakdown was as follows:
- Group 1: Testers age 21 to 30: six males, seven females (13 testers total)
- Group 2: Testers age 31 to 40: six males, seven females (13 testers total)
- Group 3: Testers age 41 to 50: six males, seven females (13 testers total)
- Group 4: Testers age 51 to 60: six males, seven females (13 testers total)
We began the test by sending each of the participants an invite to join Google+. From there, the assignment was to set up a Google+ account, create a circle, and then find friends to add to the circle.
To document the process we recorded the activity on each tester's computer screen (where they were clicking, what they were typing, etc.) with a simultaneous composite video of the testers themselves taken via their laptop webcams. Throughout the test, the participants were instructed to provide spoken feedback on how easy or hard it was to complete the various tasks along with commentary on the overall experience.
Additionally, we asked each tester to estimate how much time they spent on Facebook throughout the week and whether they could see themselves using both Facebook and Google+ (or Google+ alone) as part of their regular social media routine.
Recruiting the testers, running the tests, and compiling the results were all accomplished over a three-day period.
In reviewing the results, several trends quickly became apparent. The most commonly cited feedback we received focused on four main areas:
- Circles: Participants liked the capability to set up their own criteria for circles rather than relying on preset categories such as "work," "school," or "family."
- Navigating other users' circles: While participants liked the circle concept when it came to setting up their own circles, they found that navigating other people's circles could be confusing. Specifically, participants found that the flexible nature of the circle concept meant that the process of navigating other people's circles was not consistent, but instead varied from friend to friend depending on how their circles were set up.
- Finding, adding, and inviting friends: Participants across the entire testing pool consistently rated the process of finding, adding, and inviting friends as difficult, particularly if they didn't have their friends already organized in a Gmail account.
- Google+ raison d'être: Participants were unclear on whether Google+ was different enough from Facebook that it would make sense to have accounts with both services. Or, if they were to select just one service, they were undecided as to whether Google+ offered particularly compelling advantages that would make switching away from Facebook worthwhile.
Other interesting takeaways from the study included:
- How likely participants were to rate themselves as planning to use Google+ going forward was inversely related to their Facebook usage (i.e., heavy Facebook users rated themselves as less likely to use Google+; more-casual Facebook users rated themselves as more likely).
- Women were more likely than men to describe the user interface as difficult or confusing.
- Most participants had a favorable opinion of Google and felt that it would be more reliable than Facebook in areas such as privacy.
Recommendations and conclusion
The nature of this particular study was exploratory, rather than conclusive. That said, we can develop some initial recommendations as to what it will take to attract everyday "non-techie" users.
Primary among these is the need for Google+ to develop a compelling set of tools and capabilities that are unavailable on the Facebook platform (and would be difficult for Facebook to quickly duplicate). The Google+ circles concept certainly fits into this category, though in this particular test it was not a distinct enough advantage to sway heavy Facebook users. Hangouts, which has just received an update, is perhaps a more compelling offering along these lines, but it is not something that we examined in this particular test.
Based upon the initial insights we received, simply improving upon the Facebook experience is probably not enough. Instead, to gain a meaningful market position, our initial exploration indicates that Google+ would need to either carve out a specific, complementary niche to Facebook (a la LinkedIn) or be so much better as a social networking platform that its advantages make it worthwhile to invest in transitioning into a new social media platform, or using both.
It's a high bar, and at the moment Google+ doesn't quite have enough air based on our initial exploratory testing. That being said, it's still quite early in the game. The recent release of the Google+ API, for instance, means that we can expect a slew of apps before too long -- any of which could be potentially game changing. And of course on the Google+ end, there's the amped-up Hangouts capabilities and probably several other new developments waiting in the wings.
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