Google is ending 2011 with a cliffhanger: Will Google+ succeed? And if it does not, how much damage will the company suffer as a result?
Google has made it clear that Google+, far from being a stand-alone social networking site, is rather a much broader and more ambitious initiative that carries implications for the company's other products.
Seen initially as Google's latest attempt to crack social networking, Google+ is instead envisioned as a master application that will link Google products and give them a common social layer and mechanism for users to share photos, videos, recommendations, maps, product reviews, site links, ratings, blog posts and other content.
While people have been able to pick and choose the Google applications they use, Google+ may become almost inescapable because it will be woven tightly into the other apps.
This is a risky move on Google's part, because if Google+ doesn't catch on, or even worse, if it were to go down in flames in a privacy fiasco, the entire stack of Google applications could be negatively impacted.
The possibility that Google+ could fail is real. While Google has some extremely successful products -- its search engine, Gmail, YouTube and ad network to name a few -- it has also had its share of failures, especially in the social networking arena.
For example, the Buzz microblogging and social networking application not only bombed with users but landed the company in a privacy debacle that led to a stiff penalty from the U.S. government and the retirement of the product.
"Success for Google+ is by no means assured," said industry analyst Greg Sterling.
Although Google+ was introduced in limited release in June, and became widely available only since September, Google CEO Larry Page has made the bold bet that Google+ will succeed, and has called for its broad integration with the other Google products, a process that has already started and will continue next year.
In just a few short months, Google+ has gained various levels of integration with YouTube, Blogger, Gmail, Picasa Web, Reader, Google Music and the search engine. Some of those links have generated complaints.
For example, to set up a Google+ account, people must agree to have it linked with Picasa Web, which includes replacing their Picasa Web user name, in many cases a pseudonym, with their Google+ profile name, which Google requires be the user's real name.
The integration with Reader involved shutting down the native social content-sharing features of the popular RSS feed manager and shifting the functionality in modified form to Google+. That means Reader users who want to continue sharing RSS feed content with others need to set up a Google+ account, which also implies switching from their reader user name to their Google+ real name. The Google+/Reader integration proved very unpopular with some vocal users.
Google probably realizes that to give Google+ a fighting chance of becoming a dominant platform, it must integrate it across the company's product stack, Sterling said. Otherwise, as a stand-alone social network, Google+ is unlikely to make a dent in Facebook, most of whose users are unlikely to abandon the service for Google+, he said. Although the Google+ user base is in the tens of millions, that is only a fraction of Facebook's 850 million-plus membership.