Will Adding Games Save Google+ or Hurt It?

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NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Google (Stock Quote: GOOG) began rolling out a set of games for Google+ on Thursday, including some popular titles like Angry Birds, Bejeweled and Flood It, in an effort to enhance the social network’s user experience, but computer games may not be the saving grace that Google+ needs right now.

When Google+ first launched in June, many questioned whether it would prove popular enough to overtake Facebook (or at least cut into its user base) or flop and become the next Buzz, Google’s previous failed social networking attempt. Now, nearly two months later, the site seems positioned for neither fate.

Some 25 million users have already signed up for the service, making Google+ the fastest growing social network in history and anything but a flop, yet after the first few weeks, its traffic experienced a decline as users spent less time on the site, likely letting the employees at Facebook breathe a little easier.

No, the most likely outcome at the moment for Google+ is not that it turns into Facebook or Buzz, but that it ends up like Twitter, a site with an impressive user base that numbers in tens of millions, but in which most content is produced and read by a much smaller group of active users. This is arguably the biggest risk for Google+ going forward – that it becomes a place where a few enthusiasts (early adopters, techies, news junkies) post regularly, while casual users only check in every few days or weeks and otherwise hang out on Facebook. Unfortunately, it’s questionable whether adding games to the site will fix this problem.

“[S]haring is about more than just conversations,” one of Google’s engineers wrote on the company blog announcing the new games. “The experiences we have together are just as important to our relationships. We want to make playing games online just as fun, and just as meaningful, as playing in real life.”

There’s no doubt that adding interactive features like games can only make a social network more social, but there’s just one problem with this line of thinking: the quote could just as easily have come from Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, which has had games on its site for years. Adding games to the site only makes Google+ look and function more like Facebook at a time when the service should be finding innovative ways to stand out from Facebook and draw in the latter’s users. Indeed, the biggest successes of Google+ to date have been precisely those novel features that Facebook didn’t offer (or didn’t call attention to) like Circles and Hangouts.

(On another note, adding computer games also won’t help Google+ dispel a lingering stereotype that the site is dominated by techies, who seemed to make up a disproportionate amount of the user base when invites to the social network were harder to come by.)

If Google really wants to boost engagement on the site and make it something special in the social networking space, the company should take advantage of the unique combination of services that only it has.

Why not integrate the Google Music platform into the social network so that Google+ users can show what they are listening to at that moment and recommend songs to their friends, much in the way that Spotify does? Or they could incorporate Google Books, which has the text of millions of old and new books and magazines, so that readers could highlight and share their favorite works and passages, and perhaps even hold book group discussions on the site. And along the same lines, why not build in the Google News badges so that users can show off how much they read and perhaps, with some tweaks, what they have read that day? All of this would surely lead to a more active and vibrant community.

Needless to say, Google+ is still in its early stages and as the company’s vice president of engineering noted at the end of the blog post announcing their games, “we’re just getting started.” But if the company doesn’t keep innovating in a unique way, some of those 25 million users may not be on the site to see what comes next.

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