Google+: The Pluses, The Minuses and Everything Else

It’s been about a week since I gained access to Google+, and the combination of the long holiday weekend and pure giddiness led me to dig in and check it out.

With its initial debut, Google+ feels big. I’m not saying it is big or will be big. I’m saying it feels big because it's still very new but also for a couple other reasons. First, it merges much of what we love about Google services (e.g., profiles, Blogger, Picasa, Gmail, etc.), and second, it addresses what we hate about Google services (e.g., mistakes with Buzz, privacy issues, data portability, etc.). Is it a Facebook killer? Probably not. However, this attempt legitimately feels like Google is putting its best foot forward into the social space.

Now, for some more detail on my thoughts around Google+ by starting from the outside and working my way in. Brace yourself. This post will be a long one.

Whether it’s a pro or a con, it’s important to note that this post isn’t set in stone. Google+ is still being tested and tweaked. A con today might be a pro tomorrow as Google learns and fixes issues.

With that, what do you say we get started?

What is Google+?

Google claims that the goal of Google+ is to create an experience that improves sharing, which is “broken.” Without a doubt, Google’s good for sharing. The combination of Circles (I’ll get into this later) and other easy sharing features makes photos, videos, links and content sharing pretty seamless.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the true reason behind Google+. It’s Google’s answer to social networks, primarily Facebook. The search market is still strong, but it’s stagnant. As more consumers use social networks to gather information more often, the need for search engines, while still there, diminishes.

The bottom line is that Google+ may very well exist to improve sharing, but it can’t be ignored that it is Google’s response to the growth of powerful social networks and changing user behavior.

Hello, Google+. The UI.

Google+ greets you with a pretty striking user interface that’s uncluttured, clean and intuitive. With Google+, less is more. Still, they offer plenty of options to bring in photos and creative profile pictures to add a bit of spice to the simple space.

It can’t be ignored that Google+ certainly took a bit of inspiration from Facebook by taking its template and adding a nice veneer.

There’s plenty of room for ads too, which I can imagine will be integrated once Google+ really gets off the ground.

Content Coming Your Way. The Stream.

Google+ delivers content from those you’re connected with via the Stream, much like Facebook’s News Feed. Posts by those in you’re connected to display in this section in real-time.

The issue at the moment seems to be the level of noise. While, the stream can be filtered by your groups of people or circles, it can get pretty noisy because whenever someone comments  on a post, whether you’re connected to them or not, the post is pushed back up to the top of the stream, leaving new content below.

It will be essential to be able to filter by chronological order in order to stay sane while using Google+.

Categorizing Your Social Graph. Circles.

Google+ has a friend list feature called Circles. Much like Facebook’s Lists feature, you can categorize your connections into groups based on your relationships with them (e.g., friends, coworkers, family, etc.). Circles is executed much better than Facebook lists with the ability to drag-and-drop individuals into your circles.

Circles serve a couple of purposes. They allow you to be selective on who you’re receiving content from and who you’re sharing content with, making for a more relevant and enjoyable experience. The second reason is that it allows you to have a private (to a limited degree) and public persona on Google+. Those you are closest with receive personal content like photos of your children, while those who may just be acquaintances with receive industry news and updates. You can balance both.

The process of creating Circles is tedious and time consuming at the moment, so right now, it’s really up to the user whether or not it’s worth the time.

What Are You Doing? Not Much. Wanna Hangout?

The feature that kind of caused everyone to stop and say, “That’s pretty cool,” is Hangouts. This lets up to 10 users have a simultaneous video chat.

Users start Hangouts, which then show up in the Streams of those they’re connected to letting them know they can join.

Hangouts are public by default, so if you have someone specific you want to do a Hangout with you have to be careful because others might just decide to drop by and chat. You can, however, share Hangouts with certain Circles. Google compares Hangouts to people sitting outside and having a conversation that others can walk up to and join in.

Hangouts are a cool idea and could be very useful from a collaboration standpoint at work. Hopefully, they’ll tweak sharing options, so you can have a conversation in your living room (private) versus on your porch (public) a bit easier.

We Know You’re Going to Love This. Sparks!

Every network out there strives to deliver content and make that content relevant. Some do it based on who you interact with most like Facebook. With others, like Twitter, it depends upon who you’re connected to. With Google, the answer is Sparks, which takes Google News and makes it social.

With Sparks, you set up your interests and view news related to those interests. You can then share content with your connections. Simple.

The Old is New Again. Google Products Integrate into Google+.

Google+ takes a lot of the services Google has and integrates them. Picasa is the photo-sharing service, notifications appear in Gmail, Google Chat is Hangouts and so on.

It’s great to see that Google+ integrates so well with services that many are already used to using on a daily basis, and as reports that Google will be rebranding platforms to fit into Google+ even more (e.g., Picasa becoming Google Photos) come to fruition, this will be an even bigger deal. The move certainly makes sense.

Still, there needs to be a careful balance in mixing private with public, especially in the area of email and search. Sometimes those world don't need to mix.

Even If You Aren’t, You May Already Be on Google+.

Do you have a Google profile? Well, if you do, you’re already a Google+ user. Google’s been seeding bits and pieces to Google+ for years. Your Google profile becomes your Google+ profile. Your Picasa albums become your Google+ photo albums. Your Gmail contacts become your initial Google+ contacts.

Google+ is the integration of the tools that Google has had in place for some time into a single, cohesive experience, which is incredibly smart. However, it raises a problem, too.

Not everyone is a Google user, which may hinder Google+’s growth. When you consider that Facebook’s fastest growing demographic is older, Google+ will grow quickly initially. Getting individuals who don’t already have Google accounts to sign up may be a bit of a tough sell. After all, Gmail isn’t even the most popular email service. Maybe this isn’t a big deal to Google, and being the biggest network may not be a primary objective. If that’s the case, this may not be an issue.

Yes, Privacy Does Exist.

Google learned a thing or two from Buzz, and one of those things is privacy. Privacy settings are easy to access and manage, depending upon individual preferences. In addition, you can download your data (photos, Stream data, etc.).

In an era where privacy is a growing concern, this may prove to be a big deal, especially when compared to Facebook’s cumbersome and confusing privacy settings. Google+ may also end up filling the gap that Diaspora, the privacy-centric social network start-up, planned to fill.

The Divergent Paths of the Future.

One of the most fun aspects of launches like Google+ is speculation. The “will it,” “won’t it” questions drive conversation and encourage debate. However, all of this is nothing more than speculation. No one knows.

Is Google+ ready for your business’ investment? It’s way too early to tell, but I’d hold off for the moment. Google+ will grow and the initial crowd will mostly be tech geeks. Hold on to your wallets for the moment, and see where it goes. In addition, Google will be adding options and opportunities for businesses to create valuable experiences that are optimized for businesses versus using Google+ personal profiles as indicated by the video below. For now, keep watch as Google+ grows and develops.

As is the case with any venture, Google+ has two paths ahead of it: success and failure. Google+ has been called a Facebook Killer. I’m not positive about the future of Google+, but I see the future of Google+ as being part of an ecosystem of social networks that includes both networks as well as others.

So… let’s look into our crystal ball and figure out why Google+ might succeed and why it might fail.

Path 1: Google+ Will Blow Everyone’s Minds with Success.

Google+ certainly has a lot going for it. It brings a lot of new features and hype, while addressing much of what people have been asking for from other social networks. Everything from ease-of-use and service integration to privacy options and Circles makes Google+ a service that’s worth watching and, more importantly, using.

Google has some very valuable tools to give Google+ a boost. First, Google has a built-in user base of Gmail users, AdWords users, Picasa users and so on. In addition, you can’t overlook all of the YouTube users who are out there. It’s also impossible to ignore the Android (the leading mobile platform) users who are already receptive to using Google services. As Google+ expands and gets integrated into these other services, adoption will take place to a greater degree.

There’s also Google’s ace-in-the-hole, search. The more Google integrates social into search to make search more useful, the more attractive Google+ will become for businesses and users alike.

Path 2: Google+ Will Make Buzz Look Like an Achievement of Epic Proportions.

Google’s taken a few stabs at social, and their track record hasn’t been great. The have a lot to overcome. The first obstacle is the 750 million user gorilla in the room, Facebook. Facebook is entrenched, and it’s where families and friends have connected and gotten used to connecting. Getting some people to migrate will be easy, but getting most people to migrate will be more difficult.

Second, Google+ is just another social network. It doesn’t replace anything. It’s simply added to the list of checking Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed, LinkedIn and so on. How many of us need another thing to do? Something has to give, and because Google+ is the new kid on the block, it may be the easy choice.

Lastly, Google+ brings nothing to the table that can’t be copied by another platform, including Facebook. In fact, Facebook just announced video chat using Skype yesterday, which flies in the face of Hangouts. Competitors will be watching Google+ and copying when and where needed. If people start migrating for one reason or another, competitors can quickly and easily adjust.