The Failure Of Google Plus Should Be A Reminder That Big Companies Very Rarely Successfully 'Copy' Startups

from the not-so-easy dept

In our recent podcast on copying, we talked about the usual story that people tell about the need for patents: that they protect up and coming startups from being wiped out by “big companies with lots of money” that are simply copying their good ideas. During the podcast, we try to come up with a single example of that actually happening, and we even search the internet looking for examples — and find it very difficult to come up with a legitimate example. It almost never happens. As we’ve discussed, in the rare cases when “copying” succeeds, it’s because the second company doesn’t really copy, but actually comes up with a better product, which is something we should celebrate. When they just copy, they tend to only be able to copy the superficial aspects of what they see, rather than all the underlying tacit thinking that makes a product good. We’ve referred to it as cargo cult copying after the infamous cargo cults of World War II, who built fake airports, hoping that if they had those fake airports, all of the stuff that came with American soldiers would return.

As you may have heard, Google is finally admitting that its attempt at a Facebook killer, Google Plus, is now basically dead. Mashable has a fantastic post mortem, in which it quickly becomes clear that Google fell for the same old pitfall: cargo cult copying of Facebook:

Interviews with more than a dozen Google insiders and analysts in recent months, many speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, paint the Google of 2010-2011 as increasingly fearful of Facebook snatching away users, employees and advertisers. Google tried to mobilize itself quickly, but approached the task with all the clumsiness of a giant trying to dance with a younger, nimble startup.

Google launched Plus without a clear plan to differentiate the service from Facebook. It bet on a charismatic leader with a flawed vision, ignored troubling indications about the social network’s traction (or lack thereof) with users and continued throwing features at the wall long after many had written Google+ off for dead.

The slow demise of Google+ sheds light on how a large technology company tries and often fails to innovate when it feels threatened.

Ars Technica, similarly, has a good post mortem detailing how Google basically did everything wrong when it came to trying to get into the “social” game:

Google+ was, in a word, “forced.” It was forced not only into products and on users but onto the rest of the company, too. In 2011, for instance, Larry Page famously tied all employee bonuses to the company’s success in social. It was easy to see why Page decided to do this at the time: Facebook was big and growing and scary. What if people stopped using search and just asked their friends for websites and product recommendations?

With a fear-powered, top-down mandate and every employee having a vested interest in Google+, the social network got shoehorned into every Google product. Google+ showed up in Search, Android, Google Maps, YouTube, Google Play, and many others.

Google+ certainly isn’t the first social Google product, but it is the latest in a long line of social failures that the company still doesn’t seem to have learned from. It’s not that Google can’t build great social products?it can?it just continually misjudges which of its social products are good (or even which of its products are social) and therefore deserve the company’s focus. Google’s social past seems to follow a pattern: throw resources behind social products few people want and try to compel adoption, while neglecting the social products people do want.

And yet… despite all of these failures, you still hear people talking about the importance of things like patents, or the “fear” that Google or other large companies will suddenly enter the market and easily beat startups that are in the space, “because they’re so big.” Or “because they can just throw money at it.” And, yet, that almost never works. In fact, as we’ve seen with Google and social, they can be exceptionally clumsy at it.

Does that mean that there are no examples of it happening? Of course not. It does happen (and one could even argue that Android is a good example of Google copying iOS). But the idea that the big company always wins or that it’s somehow “easy” for big companies to wipe out little companies just isn’t supported by that much evidence. If a startup is doing something really amazing and innovative that people actually want, you can almost always guarantee that (1) the big companies will totally miss the boat for way too long and (2) once they finally wake up, be clumsy and ridiculous in their attempts to copy. On that one, there are lots of examples. Microsoft has spent the past few decades making that same mistake. Google has done it with social. Some are suggesting Apple’s latest attempt to get into streaming music is the same thing (though it’s a bit early to say on that).

People think it’s easy to copy because copying seems like it should be easy. But it’s not. You can only copy the parts you can see, which leaves out an awful lot of understanding and tacit knowledge hidden beneath the surface. It also leaves out all the knowledge of what doesn’t work that the originator has. And, finally, it ignores the competing interests within a larger business that make it much harder for those companies to innovate.

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Companies: facebook, google

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Comments on “The Failure Of Google Plus Should Be A Reminder That Big Companies Very Rarely Successfully 'Copy' Startups”

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Ninja (profile) says:

I think Google+ could have been good. If Google took time to pay attention to what people want and didn’t shove the platform onto them. I actually like the clean, easy interface (and Google excels at building nice interfaces with few exceptions) and would use Google+ but… Everybody is elsewhere.

Facebook has done an awesome job in the social front but can it remain relevant in the future? It seems younger people are actively avoiding FB precisely because it’s so mainstream. And their parents are there. So how will FB deal with it? Or will a new startup kick FB in the nuts?

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

That’s strange. I’ve never seen serious performance problems or malfunctions on G+. My biggest gripe with it is that its posting system supports a very small subset of Markdown, which makes you think, at first, that you can use Markdown formatting, except when you try to do more interesting things, they fail and you’re left with an ugly post.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Yes, I’ve heard from others who didn’t have the problems I had with it. I can’t explain it, because the problems aren’t even dependent on the machine or OS I use. I even experience them with the Android G+ and Hangout apps. Particularly Hangouts.

Lots of people do experience the same issues as me, too. I am astounded and at a loss to explain why everyone doesn’t see the same issues.

No matter. It means that G+ and Hangouts are not an option for me because they effectively don’t work.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

You could, except that Apple didn’t unveil iOS until two years after Google bought Android, Inc. Then there’s the pull down notification bar, which Apple copied from Android… Fact check, please!

Except, when Google bought Android it was basically a copy of RIM’s Blackberry OS. It was only after the iPhone came out that the Android team pivoted and basically rebuilt iOS.

And, yes, Apple has copied some things from Android (which we’ve written about:, but the overall look and feel was Google copying from Apple.

Sheogorath (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Right, like Samsung copied Apple’s round corners, which had originally come from PC monitors and older cell phones, amongst other things. My point wasn’t to say that Android doesn’t copy, it was to state the fact that tech companies all copy off each other, but Apple’s the only one to start screaming about patent infringement whenever anybody copies off them.

Michael (profile) says:

During the podcast, we try to come up with a single example of that actually happening, and we even search the internet looking for examples — and find it very difficult to come up with a legitimate example.

This is all the proof you need. Not only did big companies manage to copy little start up’s out of business, they have basically managed to do such a good job that the little start-up’s appear to never have been there. You are a Google shill and are just not able to admit that Google has been copying companies out of existence for years.

AC (profile) says:

The "forced" part is the reason it failed.

There might be a good reason for a person to link their YouTube account with Maps data with a sharing platform for friends and family, all tied up with whatever else Google decided to throw into the pot.

The problem is that since they were never linked in the first place, that person might have an entirely different online presence on all those platforms.

With Facebook, we all know going into it that whatever you do or say on that platform is relatively public, so you can self-censor before deciding what to say.
With Google+, there was an expectation of more anonymity across products that all got wiped out the first time you signed into any of them.

If they had built a more organic stand-alone product, then allowed people to link those accounts…it might have still failed, but at least people wouldn’t have downright animosity toward the presumption of total openness that we do not necessarily want.

Anonymous Coward says:

Spotify is better than apple music,
apple music is badly designed .
but its gonna be preinstalled on millions of new phones ,
so it might be a hit.Android had cut and paste and notifications before apple .
When theres millions of people ,and every company is on fb,
is there any room for another social network.
You cant buy an iphone for 50 dollars .
Android has a phone for every price range.

Rekrul says:

I was forced to create a Google+ account as a condition of being able to continue commenting on YouTube videos. When it came time to enter a description I wrote that I hated Google+, that I would never use it and that the page only existed because I was forced to create it.

Strangely, that description seems to keep vanishing. I rarely go to the Google+ website, but every time I do, my profile is completely blank.

Either Google is editing people’s profiles to remove what they don’t like, or the service really sucks at actually storing what people enter.

I just re-entered it. Let’s see how it lasts this time.

Anonymous Coward says:

"Fake airports"

The building of fake (anything) is a common practice in war. One side hopes that the enemy will attack the fake establishment instead of the real one and waste their soldiers and supplies. Even during the Cold War the US and USSR built fake stuff and displayed for the other side. Rubber balloon tanks were plentiful on both sides. The fun times were when a wind storm occurred and the balloon tanks were not tied down good enough!

And if anybody has a picture of the USSR’s rubber balloon submarine they have a collector’s item, assuming said picture(s) is(are) not classified.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: "Fake airports"

True, but that’s not what cargo cults were about. It’s actually a very interesting case study in reasoning and comprehension.

In World War II, both the Japanese and American navies set up air bases on Pacific islands, bringing in supplies for the war, some of which inevitably ended up in the hands of the local population, greatly enhancing their standard of living.

When the war was over, there was no more point in having air bases, so everyone packed up and left, but the islanders who were left behind often didn’t understand what had happened. It was discovered years later that several movements had arisen where the native populations would create ceremonial imitations of air bases and the activities that they had observed thereon, in the hopes of enticing the soldiers and their supplies to return again to bless them with prosperity. Of course, this never did succeed in its goal, because no matter how much you make your ceremonial site look like a military airstrip, if there’s nothing going on in the outside world that requires airbases, the people with the airplanes have no reason to actually use an airbase.

From this, the term “cargo cult” has passed into the lexicon as referring to someone who imitates something related to a desired outcome in the hopes of achieving that outcome, without understanding what’s really going on in the system they’re imitating, which prevents them from achieving success.

Krish (profile) says:

top-down vs. bottom-up

The difference is top-down vs. bottom-up.

Google already has a big stable of sites that they wanted to integrate by putting them on the bedrock of Google+. That’s harder to do since there is almost nothing in it for the people using those sites. Thus Google ends up forcing people to adopt Google+.

Facebook, on the other hand, is the bottle layer on which they are building their own suite of sites. Many even have directly analogous Google versions. This is a much sweeter pill for people to swallow.

Anonymous Coward (user link) says:


I guess I’ve always seen it different. In the simplest comparison, it looks like Google copied FB; however, it was different in many ways. It was almost too simple as people often got confused between ‘sharing’ and ‘messaging’ others.

Google has always had a tendency to push out apps/services and sort of let them flounder. This is very true for plus. With the exception of the login, there is also very little API integration. This made it hard to integrate other social services, expecially for trying to convince users to switch.

I actually love Plus and think it has a lot of promise. I still use it every day. I’ll be sad if Google pulls the plug on it.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Good Article, but...

“Google launched Plus without a clear plan to differentiate the service from Facebook.”

I disagree with this one line. Google wanted to offer “circles” which allowed much more granular control over sharing than Facebook allowed, and that feature had appeal to me, because it was one of the reasons I did not use Facebook extensively. Of course +’s lack of popularity was a bigger problem, so I didn’t use it either.

“Circles” was a great idea, because it more closely reflects the way that we humans are socially organized. There are things I’m willing to share with my family that I won’t share with my friends…but also vice versa.

Guardian says:

when it died

it died when google plus started allowing and tossing all these wingut hollywood shits into my face all the time….without permissions….

i dont like provacy invading scumbags and i like actors and musicians these days even less.

ive not used it in some time and like faceplant it has no place in my life due to its spam and privacy invasions

Anonymous Coward says:

Blackberry should have released an good android phone ,
with email,blackberry apps , once it was clear android was a success and bring it out at a reasonable price . Blackberry was always aimed at business users who need encrypted email .
Look at apple news it looks similar to flipboard .
google is unusual in that it closes down services with
millions on users if it deems it does not fit its current product strategy .
IF theres a really good app or os design refinement on android it will appear
on the iphone at some point .

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Google made a BUNCH of missteps doing +.
Be social, circles, hang out…
Now use your real name or f right off.
Its not a social platform it is an identity service.
We need more, we’ll make YouTube comments better by slapping real names on it.
Don’t present posts in chronological order, just randomly shift them around make people have to spend more time looking for new content we hid.
Oooh lets let people press a button on searches and send that to everyone they know.

Perhaps now they will stop listening to the 32 different masters they were trying to serve, and be consumer centric.
People like to see things in order, people don’t like to have all sorts of crap stuffed in their feed… I might be friends with you but I have no idea who these other people are and we don’t have the same tastes in things… but I keep getting bombarded by your tastes and I have no control to stop it other than to ask (and end up in a fight), change what circle you are in (and forget you exist there), or just uncircle you to save my sanity.

It is a quirky little platform, it needs some love after they finish untangling it from everything else trying to force people to use it.

Sortinghat (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I like being friends with somebody I can’t see…………..yeah that makes a lot of sense what you wrote……….NOT!!!!

If you don’t mind giving your house key to random strangers willing to watch your house while your gone and feed the dog then that’s your crappy lifestyle but don’t force it on me or anybody else!

I and many others will defect from the government if it comes to the point we have to have a smartphone just to be a legal citizen.

I’ll gladly be an outlaw and encourage others to open war with those who want to hurt us. Take out the infrastructure and cause silent mayhem.

Mike Coles (profile) says:


The only failure is the media’s ability to comprehend it. I was about to go all in for Diaspora until Google+ came along. My FB friends came over to take a look at my G+ profile and said it was barren. It is.. to them. Just because you are circled, doesn’t mean you are seeing anything. Google+ rocks. /. has me because that was my traditional site to get news for nerds and stuff that matters. TechDirt gets my attention because NerdPerfect folded. Those are once a day websites. Google+ has a stream of information that I cannot keep up with. FB is all about being PC and having to ‘like’ BS. Google+ is about sharing ideas. No other social site can compare to G+. If you’re disappointed w/ G+, you probably watch soap operas and ‘reality’ TV.

Sortinghat (profile) says:

If G+ is dead then why the F am I forced to login JUST TO VIEW forums on Google? Why am I forced to link my account on YouTube (which I gave up on doing)?

Why do people think this represents a free market? This is corny capitalism at best and dictators at worst.

Most of this generation does not even know what a *free market* actually is other then a blanket definition as they have never experienced a good economy that’s not sick.

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