As Google+ nears 3rd anniversary, where does it go from here?

Its Google I/O conference has no sessions on Google+ next week, suggesting the social network is being reassessed

With Google's social network coming up on its third anniversary, industry analysts are wondering if the company is rethinking Google+ and where it goes from here.

Google+, which has about 300 million active monthly users as of last October, has been in the shadow of Facebook and its more than 1 billion users, taking some criticism for not catching up to its competitor.

Then in April, Vic Gundotra, a senior vice president and the head of Google+, announced he was leaving the company. Gundotra was the public face of Google+, not to mention its biggest cheerleader.

His departure raised questions about the future of Google+ and whether it would falter without its steadfast leader.

Google I/O, the company's annual developers conference, will be held next week in San Francisco and there isn't one session about Google+. The schedule various sessions about Android, the cloud, Chrome and Google Play.

Google+, was launched on June 28, 2011, has been left out of the mix.

"I think, and I hope, they're taking the time to rethink it," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research. "It was the wrong answer to the wrong question. The wrong question was, "What do we do about Facebook?" Google+ is potentially a great group collaboration tool, but it's not a social networking tool. Google has to figure out what to do."

A Google spokeswoman declined to say Google+ would be mentioned during the company's opening keynote at Google I/O. She added however, that the company is not revealing any of the elements of the upcoming keynote.

That doesn't mean Google is pulling back its support of Google+, said Liz Markman, the Google spokeswoman.

"Topics and sessions will touch on multiple products and give developers a more holistic overview," Markman said in an email to Computerworld. "Google+ is of course an important component to that... And, across the board, we will have fewer sessions this year. This is part of an effort to give developers more time to interact ..."

Scott Strawn, an analyst with IDC, said there might be more going on than Google's not squeezing in time to talk to developers about Google+ and how to integrate it with the company's other services.

"Vic Gundotra has left and they've made it pretty clear that they're going to take a different approach with it," Strawn said. "I think they're going to let Google+ fade into the background."

Several analysts have said they expect the new leadership to bring change to the social network, but they expect any changes to be explained at Google I/O.

The company could shift its focus on Google+ as something more than a Facebook competitor.

While it's a social network, Google+ is also a tool that CEO Larry Page has said right along that he wants to use to integrate the company's different services -- from Gmail to its Google Apps cloud-based office suite.

Integrating Google+ into other Google services would embed identity and sharing into all of the company's products, transforming the Google experience and providing information on what its users want, when they want it.

That leads Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, to believe that Google+ isn't going anywhere, and that Google may be taking a moment to consider how to proceed with it.

"I don't think they want to lead with Google+ as a property," Moorhead added. "They want it to operate in the background for right now. This could be because of a strategic decision or they are simply rethinking what to do with Google+."

Google executives might have acknowledged that they can't win a head-to-head competition with Facebook or Twitter, so they want to focus on using Google+ to share data and information across Google properties.

It also could be that Google, and David Besbris, the new head of Google+, need time to figure out how better to take on their social rivals.

"I think Google has tied so many other things to it, they won't let it die," said Gottheil. "It makes sense for emails, files, chats, etc., to be tied to Google+ circles. Sometimes you need to rethink things before you disseminate them."

This article, As Google+ nears 3rd anniversary, where does it go from here?, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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