First Impressions: Test Driving Google+

Google+ Social NetworkIf you’ve explored social networking with Twitter and Facebook, there’s a chance you might have noticed the “field trial” launch of Google’s next social networking product, Google+, last week. I say “next” because Google has thrown a number of social products at the wall over the last decade (Orkut, Wave, Buzz) and none of them have turned out to be very sticky. Google+ may change that. I’ve been using it for about a week, and it’s an interesting hybrid of Twitter and Facebook that could give both of them a run for their money.

Before we explore Google+, a little background. Google has been losing engineers and executives to Facebook for a couple of years – Facebook has largely supplanted Google as the “hot” internet company, and Google has been unsuccessful in building any kind of social functionality into their products, much less in creating a social networking platform out of whole cloth. But Google has something now that they’ve never had before: big-time market share in something other than search. For years, Google has tried to bolt social features (and many other things) into their search product, but most users want search to stay simple and straightforward.

But then came Android. Google’s smartphone platform has taken the mobile world by storm, grabbing up market share quickly through a savvy combination of giving the operating system away for free and allowing carriers and manufacturers to customize it to their liking. Android represents an unprecedented opportunity for Google to “bake” their tools and software into a phone, thus capturing yet more eyeballs for their real core business: selling advertising.

Where does Google+ fit into this? I think it’s do or die: Google can’t afford to have tens of millions of smartphone user eyeballs sucked into competing social network platforms. Facebook is, at heart, a massive photo-sharing network (the largest one in the world, actually). Smartphones are rapidly becoming the primary method of taking pictures; the image quality is fabulous, and it’s a camera that you always have with you. Is the social networking battle really as prosaic and simple as photo sharing? Of course not. But don’t underestimate its importance. If you want confirmation, look no further than Google’s recent decision to roll its own photo sharing service, Picasa, into Google+ itself.

Google’s biggest problem, and consequently its primary threat, is that with the unfettered proliferation of junk web content, search and advertising may soon be effectively restricted to “trusted” sources – that is, you’ll be more likely to seek out things via the people you know rather than using a general-purpose search engine. Facebook is growing like a weed, and their advertising platform boasts a level of personal targeting unavailable in Google’s products; forget about keywords and geotargeting – Facebook knows what your friends like. That’s powerful stuff, and Google doesn’t just want a piece of it; they view it as a threat to their very existence.

Inside Google+

So, perhaps the strangest trait of Google+ is its current lack of any kind of advertising. It’s a smart, though transparent, tactic – encourage early adopters and influencers to join during one of Google’s trademark (sometimes years-long) “beta” phases and then blend in the advertising model later. Like Wave a few years back, any new Google product announcement causes the entire tech community to salivate like hungry dogs, scrounging for precious invites. With Wave and Buzz, the hype was met with a resounding “huh?” once users got access. I don’t think that’s going to be the case with Google+.

First of all, Google has just recently gotten the User Experience religion, which you can see in the new version of Gmail’s interface and improvements to their SERP (search engine results page). Google+ actually looks like UX designers had a hand in it, rather than just engineers. In fact, it’s less visually cluttered than Facebook itself, which seems to be in a constant battle between feature cramming and interface cleanup.

Second, Google+ offers an interesting (and possibly superior) alternative to  Facebook’s “friending” – a system called Circles. Circles are easy to organize visually and, perhaps more importantly, don’t require the same type of explicit approval, notification and reciprocation that Facebook requires. Facebook accomplishes this by bifurcating relationships into “Friends” and “Fans” (the latter primarily for celebrities, businesses and organizations); you can become a fan of something without any kind of reciprocal approval. It’s vastly superior to a business having to approve thousands of friend requests, but it makes the “fan” type of interaction much less personal.

Circles allow you to manage both personal and “fan” relationship seamlessly and mix them together however you like (it may, in fact, offer too much freedom and control for the average user). You can draw the lines wherever you want, and while the party you friend or follow might reciprocate, they never have to in order for the whole thing to work. In that sense, Google+ is an interesting hybrid of Twitter and Facebook, and Google has clearly learned from Facebook’s own missteps trying to craft a “real-time” status feed as Twitter’s popularity began to soar. Where Facebook has bolted on, Google has re-thought from the ground up, and it shows in the simple management of relationships and status.

That’s not to say that Google+ is anything revolutionary. If you were color-blind, you might have a tough time distinguishing between the two at first glance (Facebook’s trademark blue has been toned down to neutral blacks and grays on Google+). Let’s not mince words: Google+ is a blatant attempt to rip off the best of Facebook and Twitter and create a competing social network platform. It is, at best, an incremental improvement over existing technology. It will initially appeal to early adopters, Facebook haters and über-nerds like me who have to have their hands on every new bell and whistle that comes out.

I haven’t mentioned a few other marquee features of Google+, because I don’t think they’ll make much difference in the social network arms race. “Hangouts” are video chat rooms, and Sparks are topic-specific news feeds (like RSS). Neither of these are compelling reasons to pick one social network over another. In fact, constantly slapping new features and tools into social networks can backfire – witness the continued appeal of Twitter, with its restrictive format. Both Google+ and Facebook could learn a lesson from Twitter and offer better compression or summarization of feeds; my primary complaint about Google+ is that a single status update, with an article excerpt, link or video, often takes up an entire screen. It certainly doesn’t encourage the quick, cursory skimming that Twitter excels at.

The Mobile Gorilla in the Room

But all of this may be academic. Google will be successful with Google+, and not because of nerds, early adopters or tech writers like me. Google+ will be baked into Android handsets (the Android app is already available) and Google will put every ounce of its muscle into adoption on the mobile side. I expect Google’s nascent local deals business and Places to all flow through Google+ shortly. Consider all the first-time Android phone buyers out there (and there are millions and millions of them): if Google can provide the right combination of incentives and simplicity to push even half those users into Google+ for something as simple as photo sharing from their smart phone, they’ll build market share faster than you can spell “Zuckerberg”.

Is Facebook scared? Should they be? Maybe. Facebook has built an unbelievably large, loyal user base and has shown over and over that even egregious missteps fail to generate any substantial abandonment of the service. Ultimately, the two companies are coming at revenue from opposite ends: Facebook has built market share with your relationships and is only recently beginning to monetize it; Google has been monetizing content for years and now wants in on your relationships. I don’t think Google+ will result in a massive exodus from Facebook, but if it steals advertising dollars, that may be all Google needs to call it a success.