At the end of June, search giant Google unveiled its new social networking site, Google+ (phonetically pronounced “Google Plus”). Google+ is the company’s attempt, albeit not its first, to create a social network that rivals dominant services like Facebook and Twitter. Google is trying to differentiate itself from those networks by providing robust tools for managing friends & followers and the type of content that you can share with them. This control is accomplished through a mechanism called Circles, where contacts can be categorized as “Friends”, “Acquaintances”, and whatever other custom categories you’d like to create. When you post messages or share content like photos, links, and videos, you can choose which Circles can view that content.
There are two other primary functions of Google+ that are new: Hangouts and Sparks. Hangouts is a group video chat tool that allows up to ten people at a time to have a conversation. We tried it out at the InfoTrends office last week and it is indeed a pretty cool experience. Also, if you don’t have a webcam handy (like myself), you can still participate in a Hangout via audio. Just one week after Google+ was announced, Facebook announced a partnership with Skype that enabled one-on-one video chat within the Facebook network. The general reaction has been that Google has a leg up due to the group functionality (which can only be enabled in Skype through a paid “Premium” subscription). Sparks is essentially a news feed you can add to Google+ based on your interests. If you find an interesting piece of news or content in your feed, you can instantly share it with your Google+ friends. It has been rumored that Google will integrate and rebrand its blogging service, Blogger, and its photo hosting/sharing service, Picasa, into Google+ in the near future.
Previously, Google launched a network called orkut, which is still in operation and is popular in India and Brazil. In addition, the company tried its luck with social collaboration and messaging through its Google Wave tool, but failed to gain widespread traction. The launch of Google Buzz in February 2010 was marred with privacy concerns when the company opened up Google users’ account information without warning or permission. Did Google learn from its past experiences with its new foray into the lucrative world of social networking?
For the most part, I think it has, and here’s why:
- Testing and Feedback: When Google+ launched, it was made available to Google employees and a very limited amount of journalists and analysts, with the intent of ensuring that proper, controlled testing was conducted before rolling it out to the masses. Over the past few weeks, the company has opened up invites for longer periods of time, enabling it to quickly amass over 10 million users, which speaks to the exponential inertia of the social Web.
- Content Control: Google+ is certainly not the same as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or any other specific social network due to the control it provides over how content is shared. Nevertheless, I think it does take some core elements from existing social networks and implements them in a unique way. There are no such things as friend requests; anyone can add you to their Circles, just like anyone can follow you on Twitter (if you have a public account) at will. Like Facebook and LinkedIn, there is a rich stream of content and information that you can view; Circles act like Twitter’s List feature, enabling you to view this information based on the way you categorize your friends.
- Preemptive Release of +1: At the end of March this year, Google released “+1”, its version of the Facebook “Like” button or the Twitter “Retweet” button. The button originally premiered in Google’s search results as a way to recommend content and make search results more relevant. In June, +1 was made available to the entire Web, enabling sites to implement a +1 button on all content for sharing purposes. The button has popped up on sites like The Huffington Post, Reuters, Mashable, and many others. The roll-out of +1 before launching Google+ was a smart move as it provides users with an instant way of sharing content on the network.
The Google+ interface is very clean; vacant of the targeted ads that exist across the social network landscape. Expect that to change fairly quickly. Google plans to soon offer brands their own tools to create a Google+ presence, which will likely rival Facebook Pages. Additionally, there’s no doubt that, over time, Google will implement contextual, targeted advertising in Google+. After all, it was calculated that it cost Google close to $600 million to build its social network. As we’ve seen, every social network needs a business model at some point or another, and advertising seems to be a winning route to take in most cases.
I’m a big fan of social networking via mobile devices, so when the Google+ iPhone app is finally approved for the App Store, I will likely become much more active on the site. I’ve already connected with a number of folks from the printing industry via Google+, and hope to see many more (you can connect with me on Google+ here).
With all the questions and mystique that seems to still exist around social networking, my suggestion is always to try it out and get a feel for it. Google+ has gained a lot of traction in a short amount of time, in part because I think it does indeed have some differentiating factors when compared to other networks. The key question will be whether the hype can be sustained. There are only so many hours in the day, and there needs to be clear value and a continually evolving platform to keep peoples’ attention. While it remains to be seen if that will happen, Google is certainly off to a good start.