Google_app_launcher_screenshotJust a few years ago, when Google first launched its fledgling social network, Google+, hard sells abounded. Most notably, since January of 2012, any new Google account automatically had to create a profile on Google+. Whether you signed up for Gmail, Calendar, Google Analytics, or any other related tool, a Google+ account was mandatory.

This strong arm tactic didn’t bode well for much of the community. Yet Google didn’t much care. They continued to give high value to active Google+ businesses in search rankings, and it looked like the world was forced to embrace the social network, or risk damaged search rankings or no access to Google’s other tools.

Quietly, and rather mysteriously, Google has lifted this requirement. Now, when new users sign up for any Google service, they have a (gasp) choice regarding whether or not a Google+ profile is generated. It’s an easy one-click approval to launch into Google’s social foray, but it isn’t forced upon the user.

On the surface, this may simply be a reaction to pacify unhappy users who felt forced to join the Google+ party. Or it may be a strong statement from Google that social networking is no longer a game they wish to competitively play. What’s the future hold for Google+? That’s the question of the week.

No Matter How You Slice it, It’s a Smart Move from Google

Google is no stranger to decisions that are met with anger and disgruntled users. One classic example is the integration of YouTube comments and Google+, which elicited a firestorm of protest. Triggered a year ago, this particular controversy has quieted, but it’s hard to say how pervasive the damage was.

Google+ has been the antithesis of a slam dunk since it launched, with various reasons users did not embrace the network. At the forefront of the frustration, however, was the overwhelming opinion that users were forced to adopt the platform, especially if SEO was at all a priority. Rather than create a service that people used because of delicious features and effectiveness, Google went the “use it or else” route.

The decision to lift automatic Google+ accounts is a positive regardless of what Google’s motivations are. The web is uttering a resounding sigh of relief. When you give power back to the people you serve, it may seem like a risky move (staying in control feels so much safer as a business), but ultimately, longevity requires you to please the masses. So score one for Google that they finally lightened up.

Does it Mean the End for Google+?

The big mystery on everyone’s minds now is whether or not this is a play by the tech giant to get out of the social networking space. Since Google+ has never really materialized as a Facebook
killer, folks have speculated the demise of the site almost since it launched.

The truth is, this one small but significant move does not directly communicate that Google is throwing in the social towel. It may very well be a decision based on user feedback and opinion, and not at all reflective of their commitment to Google+.

Those that assume it is indeed a fatal blow to the network also cite April’s big news that Vic Gundotra, the proclaimed Godfather of Google+, stepped down from his post. And just a short month ago, Google stripped the Google+ authorship information from search results, giving more fodder to those assuming it’s lights out for the social network.

For Google to truly let go of this extremely expensive and high-profile service will require nothing short of a catastrophic event. In all likelihood, Google will continue tweaking the service, accepting partial defeat in that it’s currently not a Facebook competitor. But looking at Google+’s actual stats, it’s clear to see it is NOT a complete failure. By any other standards, the site has done very well. We should all have such usage and traffic metrics!

Services like Hangouts are still clearly being improved upon and elevated, and they are essential parts of the Google+ experience. Perhaps this new move is more about creating a priority of retention over acquisition, as the previous model of forced registrations clearly didn’t engender loyalty or interest. If this is Google’s intention, it’s a very, very smart move. There is still a chance they can turn Google+ into a usable, popular social network, but forcing users to love it wasn’t the path to greatness.

Three years is a long time in Internet time, and Google has learned a lot since the social platform launched. Part of the secret to Google’s longevity is the ability to act quickly and intelligently to user feedback. Maybe the “quick” part doesn’t apply to the Google+ response, but better late than never. If they refocus efforts on pumping up features and usability on Google+, rather than straight registration numbers, there’s still hope that the social site can become a much-loved and valuable aspect to the Google family of services.

What’s your opinion about this bold new move? Is Google+ being reworked, or abandoned all together?