Without mandatory signups, is Google+ adrift?

Analysts debate whether Google is abandoning its social network or simply changing course

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Now that Google has backed away from requiring new Gmail users to automatically sign up for Google+, analysts are wondering whether the company is giving up on its social network.

Earlier this month, Google stopped mandating a Google+ signup for new Gmail users, but the company denies the move has anything to do with its commitment to the network. Google+ has largely remained in Facebook's shadow for all of its three years.

Google had required creation of a Google+ account for new Gmail users since December 2011.

"We updated the signup experience in early September," a Google spokeswoman said via email. "Users can now create a public profile during signup, or later, if and when they share public content for the first time (like a restaurant review, YouTube video or Google+ post)."

She said that the network's user base is growing, but declined to give any numbers on how many people now use Google+ or its growth rate.

Last October, the company reported that Google+ had about 300 million active monthly users. Since then, Goole has offered little information about the social network's user base. Unless growth has skyrocketed in recent months, it is likely still a distant second to rival Facebook and its more than 1 billion users.

Also prompting questions about Google's commitment to the social network was its absence at Google I/O, the company's major developer conference, last spring. None of Google's executives mentioned it during a long and far-ranging keynote, nor did it warrant a Google I/O session or panel.

The silence about Google+ followed the departure of Vic Gundotra, a senior vice president and the head of Google+, in April. Gundotra -- the public face of Google+, not to mention its biggest cheerleader -- didn't just step aside. He left the company.

That raised doubts about the future of Google+ and whether it would falter without its steadfast leader.

"It appears that one of two things are happening," said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy. "Either they are slowly backing off their commitment or the forced signups to Google+ are causing a high degree of dissatisfaction with consumers."

He added that Google+, which rolled out in June 2011, seems to be stagnating, both in terms of industry discussion and in terms of Google's own excitement.

"I honestly do not remember the last time they added a feature or even communicated something important about the platform," said Moorhead. "They didn't even discuss it at their premiere developer event, Google I/O, which, to me, spoke volumes. I think it's safe to say they are backing away from Google+. It is unclear if they are abandoning it, but it is clear they are not improving it."

Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with ZK Research, said it could be that Google, by ending its mandate that Gmail users sign up for Google+, is backing away from its social network or it could be that the network is growing enough without forcing people to join it.

"Now that users don't have to sign up, we should have a better idea as to whether users are signing up on Google+ because they want to or because they had to. We may see a precipitous drop off in Google+ now."

If the company isn't talking about the Google+ user base, however, it will be hard to discern what is happening to it.

"It's an interesting move," said Kerravala of the sign-up mandate change. "I think they're just letting users decide whether they want to be part of that community. It's still the second largest social network."

Google also simply could be letting Google+ move away from its role as a social network - and Facebook rival -- and into a role where it serves more as an integrator for various Google products.

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

Integrating Google+ into other Google services would effectively 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.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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