Released at the end of June 2011, Google+ is now pretty much a Facebook clone, with some nice bells and whistles, and it has a steep climb before it can even compete. But, Google has the deep pockets and the incentive to make this work, they’re rolling out the service slowly so there’s a cool cachet to join in, and there are a dozen ways they can integrate Google+ with the rest of their Googleverse, advertising, services and hardware, for both consumer and business purposes.
Social networking has two significant constraints: one is where your friends or colleagues are and the other is just the available time for online interaction. MySpace and AOL seemed invincible during their heydays, but lost to Facebook, and Twitter grew alongside Facebook, so it’s certainly possible. (My theory is that Twitter’s 140-character limit forces posters to condense their ideas and made it easy for readers to skim along and only click when they are really interested and/or have the time to browse.) Google + is more like Facebook.
Google+ has reasonable social-network tools, focused on a stream of posts from people you’ve connected to and sharing to specified Circles of people, both within Google+ and as bonus, sending these messages by email. Posts on a stream are sorted somewhat chronologically, though the rules have already changed so that one comment on a post might not keep it at the very top (I think there’s no perfect algorithm for this). You can channel the stream using Circles to make sure to see your family or co-workers’ posts without having to scan for them in the main stream. Like Facebook and Twitter, the system notifies you if someone comments on your post or a post you commented on; like Facebook and Twitter (and unlike Disqus), there’s no way to thread a discussion, so it’s all one long list of replies. But, you can edit a post or a comment.
Other features include, “+1” instead of “like,” integrated chat (Google Talk), a fairly anemic topical search list called ‘Sparks.” There’s an impressive browser- and Android-based group video chat system called “Hangouts” (on July 6, Facebook announced Skype-powered video chat). Personal profiles are more adult than the Facebook approach; there are no fields for favorite movie or sports. Photo sharing is a bit more controllable than with Facebook: it’s easier to limit photo visibility. All of these are tied to the Circles concept.
Circles and Google+ Privacy
Anyone who’s wrestled with Lists in Facebook will be happy with the beautiful and responsive Circles interface. It’s fairly easy to edit who is in which circle, though not entirely intuitive. But that’s not necessarily a mass-consumption killer feature; only a few people are interested in filtering their relationships into tidy lists. These are so tightly integrated that it’s quite difficult to add an account without adding it to a circle. However, in adding people to circles and shared posts, the system suggests a whole lot of people I’ve never heard of. I guess they might be in circles of people in my circles?
There’s also a slightly alarming red circle called “Blocked” which was created for me. It turns out that Google automatically stuck my son’s text message number in there, I guess so I don’t share my posts and text him by accident.
Google+ is more privacy-aware than Google Buzz was at the start; that defaulted to publicly grouping each account with everyone from their Gmail address book (including accounts that sent email but you did not reply to), which exposed some relationships that should have been private. Google+ doesn’t do that, though it keeps suggesting those people as connections. All communication is via HTTPS (SSL encrypted), so there’s no way for it to be tapped or hacked between the browser or other client and the Google server. It’s reasonably easy to limit visibility while posting, as the Circles to post to are bright and visible, rather than Facebook’s little black lock icon. Re-posting is still in flux; if you share a “Limited” post (shared to specific Circles or accounts) with your own circle or the public, it shows a mild warning, but people can still do it. There’s a partial solution: using the tiny action triangle after posting, there's a menu item to “Disable reshare,” but as with email, there’s no way to disable copy and pasting the text.
There are several places to set privacy: one’s Google+ profile page, and two from one’s Account Settings (from the little gear icon in the upper left corner), Google+ Settings, and Account Profile and Privacy Settings. As in Facebook, many of the options are set to be more public rather than more private.
A Note on Hiding Connections
Google+ will not show the circle names, so you don't necessarily have to think of names for the group of boring people you didn’t mean to connect with. However, the default is to show everyone you follow and who follows you, and within circles, to show each member the other members in that circle. To change that, you have to go to the Profile and choose Edit Profile, then click on the section about Circles, and up will come a little dialog with two sections: In your circles - Show people in (with a checkbox for yes, and a dropdown menu with the circle names and checks) / Have you in the circles - Show people who have added you to their circles (checkbox defaults to yes).
And the subtleties continue: “[I]f you’re only following a person via a private circle, the fact that you’re following this person will not be visible on either your publicly visible profile or theirs; it will be known only to you and to them… No, we don’t have a ‘follow someone and don’t tell them you’re following them’ mode. That would be creepy.” (Post by Yonatan Zunger July 5, 2011.)
Google+ Integrated Everywhere
Google+ has an Android app, which now can automatically upload photos seamlessly to the Google+ account and start Huddle group text discussions. There is a forthcoming iPhone application, and while there are some great engineers on the iOS projects, Google is so much closer to the development of Android that they will be able to do more integration faster. This applies to their ChromeOS and Chrome browser as well; look to them to have Google+ all the time, everywhere.
Right now, the +1 button for marking search and site commenting is not feeding into the Google+ stream or the “+1s” section hidden in the Google+ profile, but I expect that they will be merged fairly soon. And, the branding is spreading; Picasa will be Google Photos, Blogger will become Google Blogs, and Buzz posts are being ported to Google Profiles, after which Buzz is likely to disappear. Google Profiles, which have never been a big thing, are becoming Google+ profiles for those with accounts, and all old private profiles will be deleted on July 31.
Google is being fairly quiet about future features, but interested techies reading through the code have found hints on future integration of “Meetings” (more professional than “Hangouts”) with Google Apps (within and across domains), Calendar, Gmail, Google Voice, document sharing, screencasts, whiteboards, recordings and automated note-taking, as well as meeting licensing mechanisms.
Expect advertising. Ads on Gmail have become more targeted using profiles and more blatant using graphic display ads instead of just text ads, and as Facebook and Twitter have moved to show ads, we should assume that Google+ will include ads in a similar way.
Can't Find the Search?
Weirdly enough, there is no way to search on Google+ posts; the search box only looks at profiles. Google+ people say they are working on it (see June 30 discussion started by Danny Sullivan), and just decided to go ahead with the public testing.
There are several intersecting problems with searching Google+: the first is near-real-time index updates, where each post and each comment should be added to the searchable index. Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn all try to do this, but at some times they lag for several minutes or hours before the search catches up, but Google is supposed to be the expert at search. Another problem is access control: no one should be able to see posts if they’re not in the right circle. This means that for every search result, the system has to check that the searcher should have access to the post, and it had better be absolutely current or there will be some very embarrassing leaks of personal and corporate information.
For the mean time, search for public posts in any of the web search engines with the filter site:plus.google.com, or use the Google+ Search Helper.
Google for Business
One feature that’s clearly coming is brand/company/institutional accounts. Right now, Google+ discourages everyone but people; it requires a first and last name (though one can apparently be a period), and a birthdate more than 13 years ago (as children’s personal data must be protected very carefully). It’s a bit odd that Google+ did not include a non-person account option to begin with—they could have used Google Webmaster and Analytics accounts as a basis. They probably will later.
If Google+ gets integrated with Google Apps, it can fill the internal social networking demand for a lot of institutions, especially small ones with limited IT budgets. If the network admin controlled the Circles, some people would see the posts and get invited to the meetings for Project A, some for Budget B, and some for both. Sales people could add some customers to see some parts of Project A, creating an instant extranet. There’s a group texting function (currently on Android only), and multimedia teleconferencing becomes painless, no servers or even client apps are required, so collaborative groups could have some of that informal “hanging out” experience, in addition to more formal meetings. Facebook can’t compete here, because it doesn't have the experience to deal with all the hassles of firewalls and LDAP and purchase orders. But having everything from one vendor has downsides; if there’s any hitch anywhere from your purchasing system through their order processing system, DNS, net connections and even service downtime, you are stuck.
Own Your Own Data
The most important conclusion: own your own data. Make it a habit to use the Google Takeout feature to back up all your contacts, posts, and conversations. For public interaction, keep your website, keep your mailing lists, and keep your blog. Push content to Twitter/Facebook/Google+ using something like Posterous, but don’t rely on any of them to have your best interests at heart.