Jul 6, 2011

[Google] First Impressions of Google+

Everyone knows that Google doesn't know social. Orkut, their first social network, only gained popularity in Brazil and India. Buzz was a PR disaster given the privacy issues that were raised after it was aggressively launched for all users. Wave was a product that everyone agreed was amazingly useful provided people could figure out what to use it for. Time and time again Google has stepped up to the plate in the social game and pretty much washed out.

Google+ Welcome

But now there's Google+, the search giant's latest foray into the world of social networking. And in an environment that's dominated by Facebook, everyone's taking notice of whether or not this new service is going to fly or if it's going to bomb out just like all of Google's other social ventures have.

Now I admit that I'm quite the Google fan boy, and all my friends know this for the most part. I signed up for Orkut before I ever even thought about going to Facebook. I spent time trying to appreciate Buzz and build relationships there. And I still use Google Wave event though the application is no longer being actively developed. And I'm definitely not using it like it was designed to be used - at least I think that's the case.

So I approached Google+ with a fair amount of caution mixed in with my excitement for a new Google product. But after being able to get into the limited beta and playing around with the site for a few days, I can definitely say that I'm impressed with what they've done here. It's a potential game-changer to be sure - but not quite in the same manner that everyone thinks it will be.

In my opinion, the first thing you need to consider is that Google+ is not a Facebook-killer. I don't think any other social network can possible achieve that goal nor is this the mindset behind Google+. On top of the whole host of features that have been introduced as a part of Google+, this is more than a Facebook clone. In truth, I feel Google+ is way more than a new social network - it's Google finally adding a fulfilling social experience to the entire Google suite of web application and services.

But let's talk about the service first.

Google+ has a lot of the things that make Facebook great and avoided a lot of the issues that continue to make Facebook so controversial. But it's clear that there's a very big difference in philosophy behind the two services. Facebook emphasizes the need to learn to feel comfortable sharing information with your friends freely. Sure you can limit certain status updates to certain groups of friends, but by default the system encourages you to shout things out much like we do on Twitter. With Google+, from the very beginning the design reminds you to think about who you're sharing your link or video with. Every time you can edit what groups of friends (known as Circles) get to see an update.

Creating a Circle is like creating a list of people that you want to Follow. It does not mean automatically getting access to all updates from these contacts. In this regard it's sort of like Twitter - you can follow them but they won't necessarily follow back automatically. Each person can control where each Share goes to in terms of Circles. It can still go to the general public, but obviously it's designed so that you can segment your contacts into smaller and more manageable chunks.

The interface for creating and modifying Circles is fun and highly visual - especially compared to other Google products. A contact can be placed in multiple Circles and these contacts are primarily based on your Gmail / Google Contacts, so if you haven't been keeping them tidy you can expect a mess. By default they're sorted by "Relevance", which refers more to the people that you interact with over Gmail or via Google chat, at least that's my speculation. It does get a bit dizzying when you already have a lot of Circles to manage and hopefully they'll figure out how to better organize this in time.

Instead of a Facebook Newsfeed you now have a Stream, which can show updates from all your Circles together or you can filter them by Circle so you can see updates that are relevant to you. Longtime users of Buzz will be familiar with how updates with more activity (e.g. comments) will move up to the top of the page more than others just like in Buzz.

What's pretty cool is the fact that you can always go back and edit things you've already posted. No more typos immortalized on Lamebook. No more gaffs in your sharing settings for a set of photos you don't want your boss to see. You can always go back and edit which Circles have access to your updates and you can delete, close comments or prevent resharing of updates as well.

The main highlight in Streams are Sparks, which are like more interactive Google Alerts. Once you set keywords for things that interest you (e.g. movies, comics, role-playing games, etc), relevant videos, blog posts and news articles will appear in your stream for that subject. If you find something interesting, you can instantly share it with your Google+ circles with a single click.

Google+ in Reader

One of the key differentiators about Google+ is how they've decided to handle notifications. By now you'll have noticed the new black sandbar that has replaced Google's old navigation menu at the top of all Google products. This is really your connection to Google+ regardless of where you are within the Google ecosystem. You might be answering and email in Gmail or reading your RSS feeds in Reader when you might get notifications of Google+ activity or you might decide to share an interesting link with your Circles.

Google+ Notifications in Gmail

Now you not only see activity on your Google+ shares whether you're on Google News, Google Docs or even just searching for things on Google, but you can immediately reply to these comments and updates all within the notification drop-down in the sandbar. Thus the Google+ experience truly feels like an upgrade to your entire Google system, especially for more prolific Google users.

Thus Google+ doesn't require you to stay on the site all the time for it to have value. Instead, it's right there with you no matter where you are on the Google-hosted web, thus giving you instant access to posting new content, replying to comments and even adding back people who just connected with you with their Circles.

The product is still in its very early stages and the synergies with other Google products are still slowly being rolled out. The most noticeable is with Picasa Web Albums since your Google+ photos are hosted there just like your Blogger photos. I've been a longtime user of Picasa Web but I too was frustrated with the 1GB storage limit for free accounts. With the Google+ rollout, only files of a certain size (or more than about 800px) will count towards your storage limit. So now I'm back to zero despite having nearly maxed it out in the past and I can share and tag photos with my Google+ Circles right in Picasa. Similar functions have not yet made their way to other services like YouTube or Reader, but I expect that to change in time.

Google+ comes with a lot of promising features as well, but at present the best stuff are reserved for using Android-powered phones. I still a Nokia / Symbian phone and my partner has an older iPhone and we're both limited to the default Google+ Mobile webapp, which does not include the really cooler features like Huddles. So for now I can't comment on the richness of the mobile experience for Google+ users.

The challenge at this point is waiting for Google to finally open the doors of Google+ to the public more fully. Naturally they're trying to be more careful with this rollout compared to past projects like Buzz, but the frustration of not being able to get more friends onboard is naturally frustrating to most people. At the time of this writing, I still haven't been able to invite new friends to Google+ and I've had to resort to some of the documented workarounds to get some friends onto the site.

So don't bother asking me for invites. Sorry.

Google+ is an amazing upgrade to your Google experience but I doubt it will ever fully replace the marketing / public sharing needs fulfilled by Facebook. Then again, I don't even think that's the goal of the product. Google+ is a different way to share things - a reminder that perhaps we've gotten a bit too comfortable with shouting out our personal whereabouts to the world and whatever we're thinking about at the time. It's a call to go back to being a lot more reasonable with how you share stories, thoughts, photos, videos and whatever - to make sure we think about who we're sharing things with.

It's too early to give this service a full review or a formal rating, but I'm definitely happy with how things are going so far. I earnestly hope you all get a chance to try the service out and see how it can improve your Google experience. But once more of the synergies with other Google products becomes more clear, then I expect for more people to take notice of just how brilliant this development truly is.
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