Last week, Google announced Google+ Communities. In my opinion, this is a clear sign that Google Groups are on their way out. My guess is that they will be phased out by the end of 2013. Here is why.
Both Google Groups and Google+ Communities are discussion forums for experts or people enthusiastic about a topic – be that cooking, World of Warcraft or disaster relief. But where Google Groups are essentially still nothing more than web-enabled email-lists that haven’t changed much since they were called “Dejanews” (yes, I’m that old), Google+ Communities take advantage of all the web 2.0 features that we have become accustomed to, such as rich media integration, sharing features etc.. If you were asked to re-invent Google Groups today, the result would probably look a lot like Communities.
Better than Facebook groups
From Google’s point of view, both Google Groups and Google+ Communities serve one important function: they are on the public web (unless you have set them as private) and can be found through a Google search. When it comes to subject matter discussions, Facebooks groups and pages are at a real disadvantage, since most people look for answers and find subject matter communities by googling and not by trying their luck with Facebook’s abysmal search.
Hangout with Community members
Of course Google+ Communities also integrate seamlessly with the rest of the Google+ platform which means you can for example schedule Google+ Hangouts for public discussions with your Community members.
Post to Communities from your profile page
New posts in the community automatically show up in your Google+ newsfeed, which might be a mixed blessing if you join a lot of communities. A very cool feature is that each Community you have joined essentially becomes a Google+ Circle. That means you can easily post things to your Communities from you Google+ profile page without having to visit the Community pages. The Community page itself is almost nothing more than an archive of past discussion and the form through which you join – after that all interaction can happen directly from your profile page.
Low bandwidth version?
The only disadvantage I can see is that you cannot subscribe to complete discussions by email, which is one of the big advantages of Google Groups when working in areas with limited bandwidth. While you can subscribe to original posts in Communities, for example someone asking for information about working water pumps in an area, you won’t receive the responses to the post. To see the responses you’ll have to go online. As humanitarian aidworkers, we frequently operate in environments where internet connections are painfully slow and unreliable. And while email still works most of the time (partly due to being able to use Gmail offline), the new Google+ Communities require you to have an internet connection that is robust enough to load your Google+ stream.
Pushing users towards Google+
Of course from Google’s perspective the need to go to the stream is not a bug, but a feature. At the moment Google+’s biggest problem is that only comparatively few people bother to visit the stream to interact with content. That gives Google+ the appeal of a haunted house where you still hear faint voices but aren’t sure how many of the people you hear are alive. By forcing the discussions to move from Google Groups to Google+ Communities, the company is also forcing subject matter experts, fans and enthusiasts to interact through the Google+ interface rather than through Gmail.
Update: 12. December 2012: Clarified that you can subscribe to original Community posts by email, but not to the responses to the post.