AUSTIN, Texas -- Google+ has been called a "ghost town," a "little version of Facebook" and "dead" since its launch last year. Users have continually questioned what it is and why they would want to use it.
Google's senior vice president of social business, Vic Gundotra, attempted to rebut critics' claims during a panel at South by Southwest on Friday and defended Google+ against allegations that users are fleeing a stagnant service. Traffic has declined more than 30 percent in the past four months, according to one estimate.
To hear Gundotra tell it, Google+ is a thriving social service that allows Google to better serve its users by personalizing their experiences on its numerous products, from Gmail to YouTube.
Asked to explain what Google+ is exactly, Gundotra answered, "At its simplest level, Google+ is a social layer across all of Google's services."
Gundotra described Google+ as intimately intertwined with the whole of the Google experience, rather than an independent, standalone product. Google+ is Google, according to Gundotra.
"You can think of Google+ as Google 2.0. It's the next generation of Google," Gundotra said. "The old Google was siloed; your identity and how you share with your family was different across each product." He added, "In the new version of Google, we know your name, we understand your circles and we make every service better."
To "make every service better," Google seeks to pull in even more information about its users -- specifically, who they're friends with and whose opinions they trust -- and break down barriers between its products so the company can use data gathered on one service, such as Google+, to customize a user's experience on another site, such as YouTube.
"There are some things Google could have done better," Gundotra said. "While we’ve organized the world’s pages and information, we asked ourselves, What if Google did more than understand pages but understood people? What if we could become an engine not just for information but really understood individuals? It would unlock all sorts of scenarios."
Despite mounting a vigorous defense of Google+, Gundotra failed to answer in any depth why users would want to use Google+ instead of (or even in addition to) competing social sites. So far, users don't seem to find Google+ all that compelling: The Wall Street Journal notes that, according to comScore, "[v]isitors using personal computers spent an average of about three minutes a month on Google+ between September and January, versus six to seven hours on Facebook each month over the same period."
The closest Gundotra came to an explanation was to say that using Google+ would improve an individuals’ experience on Google and deliver more personalized ads. The latter could be seen as benefiting Google more than the user, however. He also briefly noted that the ads on Google+ are less intrusive than those of its competitors and its privacy policies more respectful.
"The idea that Google could know your name and the people that matter in your life is important. It's amazing how much better Google can be if we even know the tiniest bit about you about you," Gundotra said.
Gundotra shared statistics that he argued show Google+ is bustling with activity. Yet a closer look at the numbers reveals some tricky accounting. Gundotra said that Google+ has 100 million users who return to the site monthly and 50 million who return daily. But those users aren't necessarily checking Google+. Those figures include users signed in to a Google+ account who are using any one of Google's socially-enhanced services, such as search or YouTube.
His other message to Google+ critics: You might be using it wrong.
"Make sure you're using it correctly," Gundotra said, when asked what he'd tell columnists who argue Google+ is empty.
CORRECTION: This story was updated to clarify that Google's active user metric measures individuals who are signed in to Google+ and have used any of the company's socially-enhanced sites, which include search and YouTube, among others.