Google is the king of search. But when it comes to social networking…well, we only have to look at Wave (an experiment that failed) and Buzz (a Twitter competitor that never caught on) for that answer. With Google+, the search giant takes aim at Facebook and it wants to become the destination for socializing with the people you know and the ones you’ll make down the road. The Google+ Project is currently in “Field Test” mode meaning that the company is still working out the kinks and tweaking and adding features to the service while a small selection of users try it out. The project is by invitation-only, and I was able to snag an invite earlier today. Read on after the break as I take you on a tour through the interface and the handful of features the service currently offers.
Facebook exists. Why is Google entering the social space? In their words: “Today, the connections between people increasingly happen online. Yet the subtlety and substance of real-world interactions are lost in the rigidness of our online tools. In this basic, human way, online sharing is awkward. Even broken. And we aim to fix it. We’d like to bring the nuance and richness of real-life sharing to software. We want to make Google better by including you, your relationships, and your interests. And so begins the Google+ project.” The first step towards the fix is Circles. What if online sharing worked more like your real life relationships where you get to choose who gets to know what? poses Google. Once you create your profile, the first thing you’ll want to do is add people to your organized groups, or “circles.” Google has pre-made Friends, Family, Acquaintances, and Following circles for you. You can rename these circles if you like, and you can create your own. All you have to do is search for someone (you can search by name or email) and then drag-and-drop their contact card into one of your circles. The process of adding people to your circles is neat and highly intuitive–the animation is slick. Once you have added people to your circles you will start to see their status updates and other posts populate your stream.
A note on sharing: When you go to share a status update (ie. words, pictures, videos, links, and location) Google will always ask you who or with which circles you want to share the post with. You can specify particular people, circles, or you can choose to open things up to the public at large–it’s up to you. Why Google’s approach might be better than Facebook’s: You are a college student and an intern. After having a great time at a party you post and tag pictures of yourself drinking with your friends. When you go to post them, you will specify to share these pictures only with your friends and not with your workplace boss and acquaintances.
Also worthy of note: So you know how on Facebook when someone attempts to add you as a friend you must accept their friend request. On Google+ people can add you to their circles without asking your permission. But when you think about it, this isn’t all that alarming. Even though you are included in their circle: They are not automatically added to one of your circles (you must manually add them), meaning you won’t see their updates if you don’t choose to and they won’t see your updates. This might sound a bit confusing at first, but once you get to know the service this way of handling online relationships does make sense. Think of it as how real life relationships are handled–that’s what Google wants you to do. With Circles, you have full control over who sees what.
Speaking of sharing information, the next Google+ element is called Sparks. Inside Google+ you can search for what interests you and Google will put its famed algorithms to work and cull articles from all over the web to provide you with links relevant to your search. For example, search for “apple computers” and you’ll be provided with links pertaining to the latest news about Apple technology. Ever heard of an RSS feed? That’s this, essentially. Once you’ve performed a search in Sparks you can pin the interest to the Sparks section where you’ll be able to access it with one click wherever you are in Google+. If there’s an article you want to share with others, a couple clicks will let you send the article with your specific people, circles, or the the public. Again, you’re in control of sharing. Once an article is shared, someone can comment on it and that is the birth of a conversation around a topic of interest.
“With Google+ we wanted to make on-screen gatherings fun, fluid and serendipitous, so we created Hangouts.” Google has taken a page out of Skype’s playbook and enables multi-person video chat with Google+. Initiating a vid chat is simple–tap the Start a hangout button on the homepage and invite people to, well, hang out with. Once you’ve got a video chatroom going, people can jump in and out at any time and the service will never skip a beat. What’s really neat is that Google’s integrated YouTube into the chatroom so you can watch videos together with your friends in real time. Have something you need to say while you’re watching Harry bite Charlie’s finger? A text-based chat window sits to the left for you to use whenever you like. And that’s Hangouts.
Circles, Sparks, and Hangouts. Those are the three big features Google is pushing for Google+ right now. However, since the company is a major force in mobile it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Google has introduced the social service to smartphones, and therein lies some more features. Google released a Google+ app for Android, and they say one for iOS is on the way (for now iPhone users can access it as a web app). The company’s pimping the following mobile services: (1) You can add your location to every post; (2) You can use Instant Upload to, erm, instantly upload your pictures to your photos gallery. More specifically, if you give Google your permission, your photos get uploaded to a private album in the cloud after you snap them and from there you can add them to your Google+ photo gallery for your predetermined circles to see; (3) With Huddle you can initiate a group messaging experience that gathers together selected friends or circles so you can chat together in one space. Unfortunately Huddle does not allow for video chat; perhaps Hangouts will soon migrate to mobile. Another caveat: your text conversation does not carry over to a desktop client; whether or not Huddle will be added to the more expansive Google+ experience on a PC has yet to be determined. Note that Instant Upload and Huddle are exclusive to Android users; iPhone owners are forced to hang tight for the app’s arrival.
Now that we’ve covered the major features, come with me on a quick journey around Plus’ UI. The minimalist experience is organized into four sections: Home, Photos, Stream, and Circles. Let’s start backwards. Circles is the place where you can create and organize groups and find and place people into them with a simple drag-and-drop. You can view people in your circles, people who’ve added you to their circles, and you can find and invite people to the service. Google has culled all your Gmail contacts for quick access, and even if they don’t have Google+ setup you can still add them to your circle and share things with them via email. Yahoo and Hotmail contacts are made accessible, too.
Your Profile page is pretty barebones at the moment. You Wall (if I may) is organized into the following tabs: posts (this is where all your status updates and shared items are posted); About (you can customize your education, occupation, relationships, etc.). Photos (your shared albums are stored here); Videos; +1s (this is Google’s version of dig; things you +1 around the web will show up here); and Buzz (your Google Buzz feed will populate here).
In the Photos section you can view: photos from your circles, photos from your phone (the ones that get instantly uploaded), photos of you (the ones you’re tagged in), and your albums. Clicking an image blows it up and scrubbing through albums is easy enough. You can upload new photos at any time from your computer and choose to share them with which circles.
And finally we’re back Home. The Stream takes up the better part of this section; the Stream automatically updates itself and shows you what your contacts are sharing. At the top there’s a space to enter a status update, or share pictures, video, links, and your location; and as stated above, you must specify who exactly you want to share this info with. As content comes you can +1 it, comment on it, and share it. To the left you can specify the incoming stream of content by circle. An Incoming tab shows you posts that are shared with you by people who aren’t in your circles; from here you can decide to add these people to one of your circles. The Notifications tab is a list of alerts that pertain to you; when someone in one of your circles shares something specifically with you or comments on one of your posts, for example, you will be notified. Note that every time you receive a notification an email will be sent to you; to end this madness flip the off switch in settings. Also to the left is where your Sparks interests are located. Click one to view related articles, or click Sparks to search a new topic. Under Sparks is Chat; Google has basically copy and pasted the same chat client from Gmail into Google+. You Gmail contacts are just a few click away from being messaged, called, or invited to a video chat. Note that a group chat can be initiated here, but this has no connection to Huddle, unfortunately. To the right of the Stream there’s a button to view and edit your circles, suggested contacts, the Start a hangout button, and a link to download the Google+ mobile app for Android users. In the top right corner of the screen lies quick access to notifications, sharing, and settings.
So, what does this all boil down to? Unlike their epic failure that will forever live in infamy as Wave, Google has introduced a new social and sharing experience in an appropriate manner; instead of baking in an onslaught of confusing features at once, Google is taking things slow, starting with just a handful of necessary and intuitively smart tools. If you’ve used Facebook before getting to know your way around Google+ will not take very long. As time goes on and Plus opens up to more people, more features will be added to both the desktop and mobile spaces. And slowly but surely it will transform into a more full-fledged social network of sorts.
I will leave you with this. We know why Google has gone ahead and created Google+ to compete with Facebook–“to bring the nuance and richness of real-life sharing to software,” something they think the house that Zuckerberg built is very much lacking. And so I bet you’re pondering this: why should you join another social networking site? You already have a Facebook account that works just fine, so why hop aboard an entirely new platform? The answer is simple, really. Because if you think about it, the way in which Facebook has evolved is fundamentally flawed. You have amassed a large group of “friends” and everything that you share is exposed to everyone. At the core of Plus, this is what Google aims to fix.