Google+ turns four next month.
Through much of its existence, Google's social network has often been criticized as a "ghost town" that's "dead" and about to be shut down. The criticisms always come from non-users.
Google+ fans always chime in to rebut those criticisms, often flooding the story or post with disagreement. With all those passionate users, how can it be a ghost town?
Then someone does a study based on public posts, appearing to show low engagement. The response is that private posts, which are likely to be equal in number to public posts, are not -- and cannot be -- counted. Besides, comparisons between social networks are misleading. For example, replies on Google+ are not counted as "posts," whereas on Twitter they are. So a post with 100 replies on Google+ is counted as one post; a post with 100 replies on Twitter is counted as 101 posts.
And so on.
The controversy about Google+ engagement never seems to end.
But whatever the current level of activity on Google+ is, it could be vastly higher if Google itself wasn't holding back users by suppressing public posts, removing comments, hiding amazing content and failing to fully use the technology it has already developed.
Here are 10 ways Google could radically crank up the engagement on Google+.
1. Keep comments flagged as 'spam' visible
Google algorithmically identifies comments that might be spam, then hides them in a hidden area where only the post owner can see them. Most users ignore this area, so in effect these comments are just automatically erased.
(To see flagged and hidden comments, click on the date or time in a post. Then, above comments, look for "Show comments removed as spam.")
I find that more than half of the comments Google flags on my posts are good comments that I have to take time to restore. But most people don't restore them, so Google is actually deleting a huge percentage of the engagement that takes place on Google+. Those removed comments could have sparked even more engagement by other users -- if they ever saw them. (Google says unflagging comments improves its algorithms, but I haven't noticed any improvement.)
This is the wrong way to go. It's better to keep bad comments than to remove good ones.
The solution is for Google to flag but not remove possible spam comments -- make them a different color for the post owner. Then enable rapid deletion by the post owner.
2. Create a main page with good customized filtering
Google is supposed to be good at algorithms and personalization. But there is no stream on Google+ where Google takes everything it knows about me (from this and other Google sites) and customizes a stream that reflects my real interests.
The algorithmically generated streams feel cold and impersonal -- mostly news about Android or other tech subjects. But my interests extend way beyond that, and Google certainly should know that, given the personal data it collects on me every day on a dozen sites.
The solution is to build a super stream for each user that truly reflects his or her interests.
3. Keep community posts out of Explore and What's Hot streams
Google+ communities are great. Maybe too great, in fact.
I'm a member of (or moderate) 54 communities, and it's far more than I can keep up with, even if using Google+ was my full-time job.
That's why it's vexing to see that so many of the interesting posts in the Explore and What's Hot streams are from communities I don't belong to.
Whenever I go to engage with these communities with comments, I'm told with a pop-up message that "You must join this community to comment." I'm maxed out with communities already, so I end up leaving dissatisfied.
The solution is to show communities in the Explore tab only if I'm already a member. That way, when I choose to engage, I can engage, rather than have my comments turned away and my engagement efforts wasted.
4. Remove or increase limits on circles
I've had exactly 5,000 people circled for probably three years now. (That's the limit on Google+ for people with high numbers of followers. Others have an even lower limit.)
Google+ has an amazing "Suggestions" page where Google offers people to circle. Many of those people are acquaintances or even friends that I desperately want to circle. But in order to do so, I have to slog through all my other circles looking for people to cut. It's time-consuming and frustrating. But the worst part is that I would engage with more people if I could circle them.
Engagement on business pages is probably low on Google+, but I uncircled all those pages on Google+ long ago because of the limit. I've uncircled colleagues. I've uncircled really interesting users.
If Google wants more engagement, why is it forcing me to uncircle so many people and pages? Why is it suppressing engagement in this way?
The solution is to eliminate or increase the limit on circling users and pages.
5. Bring back the hands-free stream
The first version of Google+ automatically refreshed. So you could open a search or a stream, put the open window to one side of your desktop and just watch the content go by all day. A redesign ended this feature, and now you have to manually refresh in order to update content on any search or stream.
I need a social stream running on my desktop to keep up with breaking news. So now I use Twitter via Tweetbot for an auto-updating stream. Taking my eyes off Google+ for most of the day has decreased my engagement on Google+.
The solution is to bring back the auto-refreshing stream.
6. Make public posts the default, and make it clear
Google+ posts have to be explicitly "addressed." In order for a post to happen, you have to enter a person or a circle or "Public" or "Extended circles" into the "To" box. (Extended circles means the post may be delivered to everyone in your circles and be passively visible on your profile to everyone in your circles' circles.)
However you addressed your last post becomes the default on the next post. So if your post went to your "Family" circle, your next one will, too, if you don't actively change the addressing.
Many novice Google+ users I know post privately but they think they post publicly. They send their posts to hardly anyone, then wonder why they're not getting engagement.
The solution is for "Public" to be the default addressing unless changed, and for that to be made clear to users.
7. Create a 'Twitter' view
Most Twitter posts are either trivial quips or links to content elsewhere. Another trend of late is the posting of screenshots filled with text as a way to get around Twitter's 140-character limit.
The truth is that people love the limit as users, because it doesn't overwhelm them with content, as Google+ can. Yet that limit is in reality just an interface. It's a short blurb, but by clicking the rest of the post or story, content appears on screen.
Why can't Google+ do that?
I use a service called Friends+Me to auto-post my Google+ posts to Twitter. And the results are perfect. Twitter gets only the headline of my post, plus a link back to the Google+ post where all are invited to participate in the conversation.
As a result, I tend to view Twitter as an extension or feature of Google+.
The solution is to offer a "Twitter view" showing only the first line of a post, with a link or a drop-down to uncover the rest of the post.
8. Simplify Hangouts On Air, and make it mobile
Fact is, Google had higher-quality live streaming three years ago when it launched Hangouts On Air. But it never made Hangouts On Air simple to use. And it never made it mobile.
It's not too late.
The solution is to build one-person Hangouts on Air into the mobile versions of Google+ and Hangouts, and make it a one-tap stream.
9. Enable always-on translation
Google is a truly international social network, where you engage with people all over the world.
Trouble is, most users don't appreciate this fact. They see a foreign language, and they ignore it.
Google does have a one-click translation feature. But people don't click on things.
If everyone could automatically see foreign-language posts and comments translated into their own language, they would reply and engage with that content and increase engagement overall on G+.
The solution is to make translation automatic.
10. Offer an API for third-party apps
Finally, Twitter keeps turning off or limiting API access to third-party apps then wonders why it's losing its most passionate users. Facebook never allowed it.
Google could give people what they want with a kick-ass API that could spark a hundred new ways to engage with people on Google+.
In fact, much of what I suggest above could be implemented by other companies if they had the right kind of API access.
No, Google+ is not a ghost town. And it's not dying. It's got the most passionate user community of any social network I've ever seen. I personally think it's the best social site ever created, and I love it. Many other people do too.
The problem is that users are being held back, silenced, stymied and confounded by needless policies and processes on Google+.
It's not about Google increasing engagement on Google+. It just needs to get out of the way and let it happen.