Rumors have been swirling for more than a year about Google’s new social network to rival Facebook or Twitter. No, it wasn’t Orkut (the social network Google bought that is still surprisingly popular in Brazil, Google Wave or even Google Buzz. A couple weeks ago, Google finally unveiled Google+ (or Google Plus – there doesn’t seem to be consensus yet) to a relatively small network of social media and tech industry insiders and influencers. I was lucky enough to get an invitation from a friend before Google turned invites off and I’ve been able to test out Google+ (I’ll refer to it as G+ from here on) for a couple weeks now and I wanted to give my thoughts on the new network.
About a month ago, Google unveiled their +1 button in what seemed like an attempt to compete with Facebook’s ubiquitous Like button. I quickly added the +1 button to several blogs I manage so we could start taking advantage of people starting to use the +1 button. Google first launched +1 as a way to ‘bookmark’ search results that you’ve found helpful. For example, if I search for a Chinese restaurant in Indianapolis and one of my favorites comes up in the list, I can +1 it and it will come up at the top of the list next time I search for a Chinese restaurant in town. Pretty helpful stuff. Now, with the release of G+, the +1 becomes even more useful. Before G+ there wasn’t a way to catalog all the things you +1’ed (search results, blog posts, websites, etc.), but within G+, there’s a +1 tab on your profile page so you can go back through everything you’ve +1’ed in the past – making it a better place to store true bookmarks and pages you’d like to return to than simply liking a site/post/etc. through Facebook (since there’s no ultimate catalog of the things you’ve liked outside of Facebook.com).
Circles are the foundation that G+ was built upon. While you can add friends to different lists within Facebook, it’s a feature that was added to Facebook after many people joined, so there isn’t a great adoption rate for the lists feature within Facebook.
Instead of friending people like you do on Facebook or just following them like on Twitter, you add people to your circles in G+. Unlike Facebook, you can add people to your circles without them having to add you back, but unlike Twitter, by clicking on the Incoming portion of your stream (which I’ll get to later) you can see the posts of people who have added you to their circles that aren’t yet a part of your own circles.
In addition to a simple drag and drop feature for adding people to different groups, Google also has a suggested users section to the right of your stream where you can hover over Add to Circles and easily add people to your circles.
You can also easily view content from and share content with specific circles very easily with G+. Say you want to share some photos with just people in your Family circle, it’s simple to do. If you want to share a link to an article with friends from work or share a photo with friends from college, you can do that as well.
If you had a Google Profile, it’s now your G+ Profile. You can fill in information like where you work, a bio, where you went to school, where you’ve lived as well as add photos and links to your social media profiles, websites and blogs. Just like on your Facebook profile page, you can add as little or as much information as you’d like. When people land on your profile page, they can view previous posts (but only ones that are either Public, Extended Circles or shared with a circle that they’re a part of), About, Photos, Videos +1’s and Buzz.
The G+ stream is just like the newsfeed on your Facebook wall. When you log in, you’ll see each of your Circles on the left side of the page. You can click on any circle to view updates from people in that specific circle if you don’t want updates from your circles mixing.
You can easily comment on, +1, and reshare posts within your stream. With every new post you create, whether it’s a photo, link, video or text update, you can select who you want to share the post with. You can specify any combination of circles, individuals and email addresses as well as with the Public, all your circles or (a really interesting option) Extended Circles. Extended Circles simply means that your post is viewable by everyone in your circles as well as everyone in their circles.
While G+ doesn’t have a direct messages feature like Twitter or a private messages feature like Facebook, you can post messages that can only be seen by one other person by making sure they’re the only person that you share the post with. If this feels a bit uncomfortable to use for private matters, you can always default back to another medium to send that truly private message.
I’ve tried out sending a more personal message just to an individual and they truly are the only ones who can see the message.
Tip: If you’re sharing a private post with someone, make sure you disable sharing on the post so they can’t reshare your private message.
G+ allows you to connect directly with Picasa (which will soon be rebranded as Google Phot0s) and share photos on your profile. With the G+ Android App (and the soon to be released iOS app), you’ll be able to take pictures and share them immediately with your circles.
In my opinion, this is one of the best features on G+ and one of the greatest differentiation point over Facebook. In short, Hangouts are group video chats. While Facebook just announced Skype integration to allow video chats directly from Facebook, G+’s Hangout feature is several steps ahead of the Facebook/Skype integration.
With Hangouts, you can have multiple people in the same video chat and you can also chat via text while you’re in the Hangout. This is a great way to share links or other information while you’re hanging out. Another unique feature is the ability to share YouTube videos with the Hangout. That way the entire group can watch a video together.
Tip: While you can specify groups or individuals who you invite to the Hangout, you can’t kick people out of the Hangout and anyone who is in the Hangout can invite anyone else. For that reason, if you want to have a private video chat, I’d recommend sticking with Skype or Facebook.
The G+ Sparks feature is a combination of Google News and Google Reader. You can specify things you’re interested in and set them up as Sparks. G+ then feeds interesting news stories each Spark that you can read through or share with your circles.
All these features are great and they could lead to G+ becoming a legitimate player in the social media space, but when push comes to shove, you really need to know whether G+ is driving any traffic (and, in turn, any conversions) to your site. If you have a web analytics package like Google Analytics installed on your site, you can easily track the referring links coming to your site from G+. Just like how Facebook redirects all links shared on their site through
http://www.facebook.com/l.php? to enable accurate clickthrough tracking, G+ redirects all links through
http://plus.google.com/url? and that’s easily trackable through your analytics pacakge’s referring links section.
Side note: I’m not sure why Twitter hasn’t implemented something like this. Maybe that’s where they’re headed with their t.co shortener. Since Twitter is accessed through countless apps both on computers and mobile devices as well as through Twitter.com, it seems that by redirecting all links posted via Twitter through one standard redirector (t.co), it would make accurately tracking all Twitter traffic MUCH easier for everyone. Twitter, you can take this idea, I don’t even need credit for it.
GPlus: Early Verdict?
It’s still way to early to say that G+ is a boom or a bust, but I see a lot of potential and quite a few pitfalls at the same time.
- Numbers: With 750+ million people on Facebook and 200+ million on Twitter, Google really got to this party late and it’ll take more than just luck to siphon people from networks they’re already familiar and comfortable with.
- No Business Options – Yet: Google has announced that they’re working on a solution for businesses who want to get involved on G+ – they just don’t want businesses creating profiles just yet.
- Growth Beyond Early Adpoters: Several people have started wondering lately whether G+ can grow beyond the early adopters who are on the platform now. Mashable estimates that there are nearly 10 million people using G+ already, but I can attest to the fact that the vast majority of the updates I’ve seen so far on G+ have been related to G+. Part of that could be the novelty of the platform and everyone trying to figure it out together, but there have been other networks (like Friendfeed) that have languished with only early adopters.
- Circles: Google has come up with an extremely intuitive and easy way to place people into groups. Facebook’s similar feature is clunky at best and if you haven’t already moved your friends into different groups by now, chances are you never will. It seems that Google started with Circles as the fundamental element behind G+ and it shows. It’s so easy to share anything with as many or as few people as you want.
- Hangouts: I think this is the killer feature in G+. I’ve tested it out a couple time with some colleagues and we’ve had as many as 5 people in the hangout at the same time.
- In addition to being able to have a quick video chat with one or several people, you can make the Hangouts as public or as private as you want to.
- The fact that I had already used G+’s Hangout feature made me yawn when Facebook announced last week that you could now (finally) video chat via Facebook. However, since you can only chat with one person at a time, this feature was out of date before it was even released.
- Integration with Google: This is another one of G+’s biggest strengths. Google already has a huge user base of people on Gmail, Google Docs, Google Reader, Google Maps not to even mention Google Search, and the fact that your G+ menubar stays with you whenever your on a Google property just means that people can stay connected to their network and share with them even easier than they can through Twitter or Facebook.