Google’s march into Social Media – Part 1

It’s been about two weeks and already the invite-only social network Google+ has amassed 10 million users and 1 billion shares per day (per Google’s own press releases). Clearly Google wanted to make a splash and they are succeeding, but the new social network is not without its growing pains and after two weeks of early entry beta testing, a few things stand out, both good and bad.

AuctionAnything has developed a strong social media presence over the last year or so, with both Facebook integration at the auction site level, Facebook apps for our clients, and a Facebook Fan Page. We also enjoy sharing the latest blog posts, news and Facebook wall posts with you via Twitter. Google+, once released to the public, will be an additional tool for us to share and explore with you. This early look really just scratches the surface, but Google+ is definitely a service to watch and participate in and we look forward to being a part of that new community in the coming weeks and months.

Let’s begin our first look with one of the more visible features of Google+ (and the one you will probably use the most).

One toolbar to rule them all

Google has made some interesting choices in the architecture of their new social network. From your first log in, it’s obvious that the goal of Google+ is to make the experience 100% Google with the “+” being the social extras. When logging into Gmail, Reader, Search or other Google assets (sorry, Google Apps is not yet supported), you are presented with a black bar across the top of your screen that provides access to every major consumer service Google offers.  In what is really a stroke of design brilliance, the Google+ access point is not called Google+, it’s your own name with a “+”. It’s the first item you see in this new Google bar and your eye is constantly drawn toward it. Of course you can also access your other Google branded services. You will see this bar on every Google site you visit, but sadly, there is no way to anchor this menu to your browser toolbar (although there are some Google Chrome extensions to do this).

There is a neat little red line to indicate which Google tool you are currently using (in the example above, Gmail is the currently viewed web page, in case I were to get confused). To the far right of the toolbar is your profile and settings info along with an activity indicator of what’s happening on G+.

 

Clicking the number (right now the “1” indicates I have 1 new notification I have not yet viewed on my G+ account) will drop down a list of new notifications, friend requests and post and comment updates.  Again, if you are not on a Google branded web page, this toolbar will not be present and you will have no idea if you have updates. But Google has you covered with email updates, as most every type of update can be sent to your Gmail account as an email message. In fact, this feature is on by default and so annoying, that you will be forced to change this setting within minutes of using the new service. And luckily there is a Google Chrome extension to let you see updates as long as your browser is running.

Google has hit a homerun with their new Google “bar”. It’s utility and design is just right and you quickly get used to having access to all your Google tools in one place. If the design objective of this bar was to keep you in Google’s universe of tools, it’s definitely working, as it quickly becomes annoying to leave Google pages and lose access to your toolbar’s services.

“Life is a circle…”

One of the more interesting and probably more over-discussed features of G+ is the concept of Circles. Everyone in G+ is in some type of Circle, whether a follower, a friend, or a family member. Unlike Facebook, where both parties need to approve a “friendship” request, on G+, you start out in a more public place, where people can find and add you without you needing to approve them or add them to your own network. This is not necessarily a bad thing as Google provides plenty of ways to secure what people can see of your profile and content, but this distinction is an important one in that G+ is a more discoverable service, much like Twitter. When starting out, Google provides some Circles to get you going, namely Friends, Family, Acquaintances and Followers. You can also block people which will automatically add them to a Circle called Blocked.

Adding people to your Circles is as simple as dragging a person to the desired Circle and letting go. A nice little animation sequence lets you know you did it right. Legendary programmer and designer Andy Hertzfeld (one of the original Macintosh OS programmers) is the brains behind the Circles interface and this is clearly one of the best interfaces Google has released. If you are viewing a post that includes an interesting person you would like to add to one of your Circles, a pull down menu does the trick.

As good as Circles are at keeping your contacts organized, it’s also clear that this is rev 1 of the new social network. Right now, the burden of organizing your followers is all on you. So if you wish to target posts to certain audiences, you need to explicitly post only to the right circle, and of course be sure that the circle really does contain its target audience. This is a departure from Twitter’s curated list feature but it’s also something Facebook does not offer, so it’s both good and bad in that respect.

As I continue to explore G+, I am finding many well thought out features. This was definitely not rushed to market like Google Buzz or Google Wave. However, there are glaring omissions in the current release, such as no searching of posts (really Google? no search?). And your G+ URL is an ugly string of numbers without the option to create a vanity or personal URL, although this may be coming and a third party service has been announced that provides this service for you. Many of the published reviews so far are quite positive, but keep in mind that this is still a closed beta. The masses have not yet descended on G+ and the system is still relatively fast because of low numbers of users.

Next week, I will review Comments, Sharing settings and some of the useful plug-ins and tools that have appeared since the beta release of G+.  Google has certainly done an admirable job with their new social network, creating a solid competitor in a crowded space. Although it is currently filled with early adopters, the tech press and the digital “pioneer” types, G+ is off to a good start.

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