Despite significant interest in Google+ when the beta started, it seemed to have levelled off by the time it opened to the public in September. There was another spike in activity at that point, but once again it was short lived.
Google appeared to be looking for ways to drive interest when they announced plans to support pseudonyms in addition to real names, and later implemented the ability to create brand accounts for companies and organizations. Even the public launch of Google Music, which features Google+ integration, looks like it may have been rushed to spark interest in Google+.
But evidence continued to mount suggesting most people just aren't using Google+, which made it a little surprising when Ancestry.com's Paul Allen pointed out, in December, there were already 62 million Google+ users. Last week, Google made an equally astonishing announcement in their fiscal year 2011 earnings announcement, saying there are now 90 million Google+ users.
It sounds like they have cleared a major hurdle and made a real impression on the public. Or maybe not. Yesterday Ars Technica proposed an alternate explanation which seems to fit better with the available traffic evidence. They say Google+ membership increases are the result of a new GMail signup process which creates an associated Google+ account whether the user wants one or not.
In fact, when you click on the account creation button on the GMail homepage, you are actually creating a general Google sign on, including a Google+ account. After some testing, Ars concluded it is possible to avoid creating a Google+ account when you sign up for GMail, but it's clearly designed to be difficult:
We tested out the new signup process to see if there's any way to avoid creating a Google+ account. The process is the same whether you start from the Google home page, or Gmail. Once you've clicked "Sign up for a new Google Account," you're already almost halfway through the process of creating a Google+ profile. The signup screen allows you to uncheck a box that says "Google may use my account information to personalize +1s on content and ads on non-Google websites," but doesn't give you the option to decline creating a Google+ account.
The second screen tells the user "Now that you have a Google Account, create your Google profile." There are only two options: "Add profile photo" or click "next step." There is no "skip Google+" option. Clicking either available option results in the creation of a Google+ account, which is by default public and discoverable in Google search results.
The way to avoid creating a Google+ account is to close the browser tab. If you've done that, you can open another Google page and log in, and you'll have a Google account without a Google+ profile. Basically, you must abandon the signup process halfway through in order to create a Google account without an accompanying Google+ profile, which certainly is not intuitive.
You can go into settings afterward and delete the Google+ account. Otherwise, every time you visit a Google site an icon linking to your Google+ profile is on the top right of the screen.
After further testing they did find another way to avoid the process. They say if you provide obviously fake identity information it will be skipped. Despite their earlier announcement, Google+ still requires you to provide your real name for your online identity.
While this may make Google seem desperate, and maybe a little silly, it doesn't necessarily mean Google+ is on its last legs. It was never realistic to thing it would be serious competition for the the likes of Facebook and Twitter just based on Google's name, and there's certainly no reason to think Google should panic and pull the plug.
At the same time, that's not an excuse for deliberately exxagerating its success either. Google+ may be wildly successful, or it may be a complete failure. More likely, it will fall somewhere in between. Whatever it ends up being, though, it won't happen tomorrow.
Written by: Rich Fiscus @ 23 Jan 2012 14:10