Google’s Plus One goes critical, but not in a good way

I was in Minneapolis’s Mall of America and happened to wander by the new Microsoft store. The layout, the look and the feel were a near-exact clone of the very popular Apple Stores, one of which just happened to be directly across the concourse. Here, in the largest mall in the world, I had the opportunity to compare and contrast the physical embodiments of two of the most ubiquitous brands in the world.

If not for the several floor staff in the Microsoft store, it would have been almost empty. Only one person was wandering through the aisles of new Windows phones and other devices showing off the latest from Redmond; significantly outnumbered by the two staff glued to his side, as well as two more looking on over the potential buyer’s shoulder and still one more, whom I took to be the manager, overseeing the scene from a more discrete distance.

I then swiveled 180 degrees and saw how the Apple store stacked up against the Microsoft challenger. To be fair, the store wasn’t nearly as busy as most locations I’ve been too, but even a conservative estimate would put the customer count at 15 to 20 times the sole Microsoft customer.

This brought to my mind the importance of critical mass. We humans are notoriously impressionable, and we are especially so when being asked to adopt new things. On the average, we have more in common with sheep (or lemmings) than “lone” wolves. So critical mass becomes – well – critical in determining the success of new things. It’s called social proof, and it makes or breaks markets. All things being equal, I’m going to choose Apple over Microsoft just because I have proof than other people have done the same. Then, this movement becomes self-perpetuating. The more people that follow the herd, the more that others want to join it. It’s how we’re wired, and all the Kinect games in the world won’t be enough to fight it.

Critical mass is also vital in social networks. In fact, the concept is central to the health and continued viability of any online community. When the momentum drops, the community is on it’s way to being a ghost town. When’s the last time you logged onto MySpace? Or Friendster? Or, unless you live in Brazil, Orkut?

Which brings me to Google’s Plus One. Just a few weeks ago, Rob Garner, one of my fellow Search Insiders, was pondering what Google’s new social offering might do for search. Millions signed onto Google’s service as soon as it went public. Critical mass seemed well on its way. If the trends held up, this could change everything.

And then it died.

It’s been 2 weeks since I received a Google Plus One invite, and that came from a Google employee. There has been no reason to check my Plus One circles. I really haven’t given it a thought prior to writing this column. Each and every day, I receive one or two LinkedIn invites in my inbox. I generally receive 4 to 5 Facebook invitations a week. But Google Plus One? Crickets.

Apparently the only ones using Plus One are Google employees who are forced to if they want their bonus, wannabe programmers from India and journalists who are researching the Google Plus One obituary they’re writing.

The rapid demise of Google Plus One is not new in the world of social media. Other networks have followed a similar path into oblivion, although perhaps not with the same speed. It’s the dilemma of social networks, managing to get beyond the predictable burst of the early adopters and cross the chasm to mainstream usage. To date, Facebook, LinkedIn and perhaps Twitter are the only ones to have managed the chasm crossing successfully. Google Plus One sputtered before it even got to the precipice.

What this means is that Google doesn’t have the critical mass of social usage to provide a signal to noise ratio clean enough to impact search rankings. Both the reach and frequency of usage is simply not high enough to make a credible social graph. Eric Schmidt tried to say that there was more than enough online social activity for everyone, but it seems we simply don’t have the patience or free time to maintain multiple social destinations. We’ll kick the tires of a new comer, but unless it offers something substantially better than the competition, we won’t come back with any regularity.

Google desperately needed a win with Plus One. But based on current traffic, it seems doomed.

Just like that Microsoft store stuck across the concourse from Apple.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Mediapost’s Search Insider October 6, 2011