Google may be about to drastically alter its social plans with Google+, now that the executive in charge of the project, Vic Gundotra, is leaving the company.
At least that's what a couple of anonymous sources are telling TechCrunch. Gundotra announced his departure on Thursday, and TechCrunch says Google+ will become more of a platform than a full-blown Facebook competitor. Google may also stop mandating that all new products contain social integration--a move that hasn't helped Google+'s reputation in the past.
Google has half-denied the story, saying the news of Gundotra's departure doesn't change the company's plans. (It's always possible that a change in strategy was in the works before Gundotra announced he was leaving, allowing Google's statement and TechCrunch's story to both be true.)
But if major changes to the Google+ strategy are afoot, that's a good thing. The Google+ project has long been a muddled mess of conflicting strategies, and the site itself has buckled under the weight of too many superfluous features. I wrote as much last year, when Google killed its well-liked Latitude app in favor of similar features in Google+ proper:
When you look at Google+ now, it’s clear that Google wants it to be a hub of activity for communication, events, photos and local happenings. The problem is that outside of Google+, that type of activity already exists, through services like Gmail, Calendar, YouTube and Maps. Instead of using social circles to enrich those services, Google is just poaching the best features and shoving them into the Google+ website and app, where they’ll be ignored or forgotten.
The current trend in social networking is toward unbundling, so instead of going to one site or app for all your social needs, you might split it up among several ones, each of which do one thing and do it well. Facebook recognized this a while ago, which is why it purchased Instagram and WhatsApp. If Facebook can't keep people on its own apps and website, at least it can own some of the more popular single-use tools that people are hooked on. (Kara Swisher at Re/code famously likened Facebook's "conglomerate" approach to that of Disney.)
As of last July, Google was still moving in the opposite direction, creating a more bloated Google+. And while Google has tried to bring social features to some of its standalone apps, its approach has often been heavy-handed and unpopular. Forced Google+ integration in Google Reader and YouTube, both of which had strong communities of their own beforehand, are prime examples of how Google+ fostered hostility rather than goodwill.
The time is right for Google to rethink its approach. I still like the idea of Circles as a way of controlling who sees what, but there are other ways of letting people share without the Circle mechanism, whether it's through phone numbers, Gmail context or physical proximity.
Already, there are signs that Google is on the right track, and that the unwinding of Google+ has begun. Just last week, Google started letting Gmail users share photos that they've automatically backed up from their phones. Technically, it's an expansion of a Google+ feature, but it's actually a way of liberating your photos from Google's social network. This little Gmail feature will likely do more for photo sharing through Google services than Google+ ever did, and I suspect we'll see more examples like it as Google+ is de-emphasized.
What will become of Google+ proper? Danny Sullivan at Marketing Land has some plausible speculation on that front. He suspects that Google+ accounts may simply revert to Google accounts, helping erase some of the stigma without actually changing anything substantial. Meanwhile, the actual Google+ app and website could evolve into something like Google Reader or Facebook Paper--a place you'd go to fill up on recommended links, but not necessarily a centralized hub for all things social. If that happens, Google+ would essentially be unbundled from itself.
For too long, Google+ has flailed out in too many ways, with no clear goal beyond claiming more users with questionable numbers. Cutting off the tentacles might look bad for Google, but it's better than letting the monster live.