It was Google’s answer to Facebook. Three years ago this month, the California giant launched the new social network - Google+. The aim: to counter the rising tide of internet users flocking to Facebook.
That hasn't happened, not matter how hard the search giant has tried. Now the question is: Is Google is giving up the ghost on its grand plan?
Speculation has been fueled by the resignation of longtime Google+ boss Vic Gundotra two months ago, but the company says it has no plans to abandon the service.
"Reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated," said David Besbris, a Google engineering vice president who took over Google+ when Gundotra left .
In his first public comments to a reporter since Gundotra's departure, Besbris said in an emailed statement to the San Jose Mercury News that Google+ had "hundreds of millions of users (and growing)."
He vowed: "We're committed to building a product that people absolutely love. So no, Google isn't giving up on Google+."
Experts say Google+ has served a valuable purpose for the giant Internet company as the centerpiece of a broader strategy to create a unified profile for each person who uses any of Google's online products -- the better to deliver more targeted advertising, which is highly profitable for Google.
Google did not make Besbris or Bradley Horowitz, a longtime Google+ vice president, available for a formal interview.
And Gundotra hasn't publicly explained his departure from the company, though by all accounts he left on good terms.
In his statement, relayed through a spokesperson, Besbris described Google+ as both a social network and "a social fabric on and off Google."
The latter refered to Google's efforts to make Google+ serve as the identity that people use for signing into other Google services and independent apps, as well as to comment on YouTube and endorse or share things they find on other websites while signed in to Google+.
Google said this helped the company provide a "more consistent experience" to users -- for example, by anticipating that you want directions on Google Maps for the restaurant you found with Google's search engine, then letting you review the meal on Google+.
Analysts say it also allowed the company to compile a more complete picture of a user's habits or interests, by recognizing them on a variety of services and devices, which in turn helps Google show more relevant advertising.
The biggest part of Google's $60bn in annual revenue comes from ads tied to Internet searches, but it's increasingly selling other types of online ads, too.
"The more they can combine what they know about people, across all different channels, the better understanding they have for each user, and that's vital to their ad sales efforts," Forrester Research analyst Nate Elliott told the Mercury News. When combined, he claimed that Google's broad range of apps and services may provide more information than Facebook can glean from its users' likes and updates.
Besbris actually led the engineering team that built Google+. He posts regularly on the social network, sharing photos he's taken of flowers and other things that catch his eye.
In his statement, he offered few specifics about his goals for the service, but said he wants to "build on our momentum, build a product that people absolutely love, and make Google+ the place for meaningful conversations online."
But how many people are having those conversations?
“It's never come close to Facebook's popularity as a digital town square,” said the Mercury News .
Chris Abraham, a digital marketing consultant, said "Once in a while, I meet people who are like, 'Google+ is my life.' But I think it's mostly a small group."
All a far cry from this sort of reporting three years ago: “ Google+, the challenger to Facebook launched at then end of June, is growing at an astonishing 625,000 users per day and could could reach 400 million users by the end of 2012, it was reported yesterday.
That would still be only half the 800 million users Facebook claims worldwide. But it is still a remarkable turnaround for a network which was not getting rave reviews a month ago. "
The "400 million" prediction came from Paul Allen, Ancestry.com founder and "unofficial statistician" for Google+.
Writing on his blog then - which appeared on Google - Allen said Google+ was adding new users "at a very rapid pace."
Allen said that if new signups continue at just 625k daily then Google+ will reach 100 million users on 25 Feb and 200 million users on 3 August. “At that rate they will finish 2012 with 293 million users,” said Allen.
Today Abraham said he gets little response when he shares items on Google+. He believes many users simply repost items they've already put on Facebook or other sites.
Google hasn't released any user statistics since October, when it said 540 million people worldwide used Google+ credentials to sign in or post comments on any Google service in the previous month.
A smaller group of 300 million visited "the stream" of Google+ itself, but even that figure counts people who merely click the red Google+ symbol that can appear on-screen while using other Google services.It’s not impressive beside the 1.28 billion monthly active users who use Facebook worldwide.
Nielsen researchers estimate that 27.4 million U.S. residents visited the Google+ website in April. Nielsen's estimates for Facebook were four times that: 117.8 million U.S. users on the website and 116.7 million on the mobile app, also with some overlap.
Google+ always faced an uphill battle against the more established Facebook, said Charlene Li, a social media expert and founder of research firm Altimeter Group. "If your friends are not on Google+, and likely they're not, you're going to go on Facebook."
The number of Google+ active users is actually roughly the same size as those on another service -- Twitter, according to both Nielsen and Forrester Research.
And while there's no direct advertising on Google+, said Forrester's Elliott, companies that maintain a page on Google+ have more online interactions with their followers than they do on Twitter.
"Google+ is actually a useful social site" for companies to promote their brands, he said, but "even Google doesn't seem to understand the value of Google+ as a standalone property."
Altimeter's Li said the future may lie elsewhere. While Google already operates a variety of apps and services, she noted that Facebook is building and buying a stable of stand-alone apps that let people directly share pictures, news items and messages with their friends -- all without visiting Facebook's main site.
"The idea of a destination site, like the Google+ page," she said, "is getting kind of antiquated."
Facebook says it has 1.28 billion monthly active users around the world. By comparison, Google+ says 540 million use Google+ credentials for a variety of services, with 300 million users "in the stream." Twitter reports 255 million active users.
At the time of Gundotra's resignation, TechCrunch said Google was gutting the division. According to the website "Google+ isn't dead dead. They aren't dead bolting the doors and turning off the servers."
Now the service will reportedly continue to serve as a "backbone" of other Google services.
Tech crunch said, “Whatever happens to the service, don't expect it to become anything more than it is at the moment." According to the report, Google is gutting its Google+ team by moving its Hangouts (the video chatting portion of Google+) and Photos (image storage and editing) teams to the Android division.
The legal website Findlaw, reporting on Google+ asked; “ Were you Google+'s only user? Tell us about it on Facebook, since, ya know, that's where everyone else is.”