Google+ First Impressions

Google+Now that I have spent a few days exploring and experimenting with the Google+ pre-launch beta test, I figured I would share my thoughts on it. This is Google’s most ambitious project to date and so far even in this early test phase what I have seen has impressed me.

I am going to make a bold statement here: Google+ is the social network many of us have been waiting for.

A good way to think of Google+ is not simply as a site, but as a meta-layer that lays over top of many of Google’s different properties and glues them together to form a really nice social platform with a nice selection of tools to control visibility of content and privacy.

Google Plus

At first glance Google+ seems to be similar to Facebook. The layout will be familiar and intuitive to you, utilizing a standard three-column layout. The main content area has Google+’s stream which functions largely the same as Facebook’s news feed. Here you will see posts by people you have in your circles, photos, videos, etc.

The only negative thing I have to say so far about the stream is that in this early pre-release test phase a user does not have a lot of control over sorting and display of content within the stream but I am pretty sure from stuff I have been reading more changes and features are coming to the stream before the service goes officially live. For the time being the best control I have over the stream is viewing it by circle.

As for circles, this is one of the core features of Google+ that differs it from other social platforms out there. Circles is what allows a lot of the magic to happen.

Google Plus Circles

Circles are groupings of people we add and follow. Anytime you add a contact you can add them to one or more circles. The people you have in your circles have no idea what circles you have them in at all – it is invisible to everyone but yourself. This gives you the ability to group friends from different parts of your life that you may or may not want to come in contact with one another.

While we may not consider it so, our real, non-digital lives exist within a real life social network. The difference between our real life social network and our digital one is that in the real life social network we live within is comprised of many different circles of people that may never interact, but on a site like Facebook they do and sometimes this may not be desired.

A good, basic example would be work vs friends. What if you play hooky from work to go to the beach with some friends and one of your friends innocently tags a photo with you from the beach or checks you in to the bar the day you were supposedly out sick? Oops! Your boss who you added as a friend will be none too pleased.

How about that conservative brother and your liberal friends? Sometimes even something seemingly innocent you post could end up setting off a firestorm of drama.

Google Plus Post Options

With circles those awkward, inconvenient moments can be mitigated quite a bit. Google+ won’t save you from the idiotic late-night drunken post or the mis-fired angry missive but every piece of content you post on Google+ gives you control over visibility and sharing.

When you post something, you select which circle(s) you want it to be visible to. You can also control if you want people to be able to comment on it or if they are allowed to share it on their own stream. You can even set an item to be public for whole web visibility or name specific recipients of a message by plussing them, ie ‘+Jon Niola’ to make a post into a private message ONLY visible to those people. And all of this is very easy and user friendly to figure out.

I think it is very easy to see how this platform can be a direct challenge to Facebook, especially once the SDK and API’s are out and developers can integrate apps, games, and pages as with Facebook. Even in this early stage of the product lifecycle it does most of what Facebook does but with more focus on user control of their data and privacy. Hell, if it does not work out for you, Google even has a tool to take all of your data with you to a competing site if you choose.

Google+ is a threat to Twitter as well. The ability for you to post content to the public for anyone to view or to specific circles of followers but without the limit of 140 characters is pretty nice. As a user you can choose if you want to make the given post read-only or allow comments and make it an actual conversation.

Your location-based social services such as Foursquare and Gowalla etc are on the line too. With the Android app for Google+ users can check in to places (with photos, video etc) and geotagged just like these other services, only with the granular privacy controls of Google+’s circles.

Another cool feature are the hangouts. Fire up your webcam and join folks in your various circles in a video chat right in your browser window. Quality and functionality are similar if not a little better than Skype.

What about LinkedIn? Well, nothing stops you from using Google+ for your professional networking now either. Create circles for various jobs you have worked at or your current job and isolate your posts between friends, family, work etc.

Google has a lot of web properties people use daily without much thought. Google Maps is so ubiquitous it is easy to take it for granted as yet another piece of web infrastructure. But integrate Google Search, Gmail, Maps, Places, Youtube, Picassa, Blogger, the Chrome browser, Google Docs, etc with the Google+ platform and you have THE social web.

Despite all these highly successful properties there has been so little connecting them until now. Right now we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg with what Google will be able to do with this platform as it evolves.

Am I saying that Google+ is going to crush everything and take over the world? I don’t think that will be the case. I believe all the various social services will continue to co-exist in some form. What will happen though is some will either innovate and evolve to better compete, or some may integrate themselves with Google+ via API’s as Foursquare, Twitter, and others do now with Facebook.

It is hard for me as a tech geek to write about Google+ without getting excited. I have been a fan of Google’s various offerings for years and now they are finally coming together. It does not take Nostradamus to see the enormous potential in the Google+ platform to take the Internet to the next level. What we are witnessing is yet another incremental evolution of the web. I think the next year is going to be quite exciting.

Cheers,

-Jon