Google+ Isn’t Just Another Social Network, But It’s No Facebook (yet)

Google PlusWe never thought this day would arrive. But it seems that Google has finally figured out how they are going to enter the social scene and has unleashed their “Facebook-killer” known as Google+ (pronounced “Google Plus”).  Earlier this week, the search engine giant released its latest social product. Off the heels of failed services like Google Wave and Buzz, Google was determined to make its third recent attempt one that was going in the right direction. I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to try it out and I must say that it’s definitely one of Google’s better products and shows that there is some innovation that needs to happen or else Google will find that another one of their products has seemingly been wasted right after its launch.

What is Google+?

Google+ streamGoogle+ is what people have said would be the next Facebook. It is a pseudo-social network that when you use it, it looks awfully familiar. The main activity that you see on the site is your stream: it’s a constant real-time area filled with content and activity posted by your friends. It’s very similar to your Facebook News Feed and you’ll be able to see comments being posted and posts being shared amongst your friends in real-time.

Some have compared this main feature to being the second-coming of FriendFeed since it has that same type of service and functionality. When you do start to use Google+, you’ll notice that it seems to bring a bit of nostalgia in regards to how the stream functions. I tend to agree and think that there are an awful lot of similarities between the somewhat defunct service and Google+.

But what about your friends? Like with Facebook, you’re able to follow people and have them follow you back. But with Google+, you can lump people into “Circles”, which are more targeted modules that you can have specific content visible to select Circles. So if I posted a photo of the new version of the iPhone, I might be more inclined to having it shared with only those who are into technology versus those who are into, say, fashion. This is probably a really great feature that Google has brought into the fold.

Google+ Hangout: Sharing YouTube videos in a chat roomLastly, Google+ brings the concept of video chatting on social networks to a grander scale with their Hangout feature. This is a pretty cool feature that probably leverages some YouTube technology to allow people to gather on a web chat room and talk to one another live on video. You can share YouTube videos and have a pretty good discussion about what you’re seeing. In fact, it’s almost like the group chat you wish was on Skype but only that you can specify what type of people are allowed to join (based on the Circles you select, or you can make it a public one). There is a limit on the number of people you can have in a Hangout room at any given time, although that number is unknown. But, in looking at reviews, it seems that this sole feature is the “breakout feature” of Google+ and Lifehacker calls it the “best free group video chat” they’ve seen.

So what’s the big deal about Google+?

The big deal is that it’s a pretty good attempt at building a social network. It seems that instead of having something piecemeal in the ether like they had with Google Buzz and Wave, they decided to roll it all together and integrate it with one of their most solid products: Google Profiles. They already have the profile part of Facebook, but they weren’t really leveraging it. It stood stagnant. Well now, like the formation of Voltron, Google has assembled most of the pieces necessary to create a really good product. But they are still a long way away from using something that will get people to decrease or stop their usage of Facebook. In fact, TechCrunch’s review by MG Siegler (@parislemon) puts it best:

…Google+ is by far the best effort in social that Google has put out there yet. But traction will be contingent upon everyone convincing their contacts to regularly use it. Even for something with the scale of Google, that’s not the easiest thing in the world — as we’ve seen with Wave and Buzz. There will need to be compelling reasons to share on Google+ instead of Facebook and/or Twitter — or, at the very least, along with all of those other networks.

Google Toolbar

Many have speculated that Google+ will be competing with Facebook. I think that they’re right, but I also think that it’s also taking on any major network out there (including Microsoft/Skype) and it’s designed itself to create something a bit more centralized. This is, after all, Google. They are in the business of making themselves a one-stop shop – and there’s doing on heck of a job. Though they started off in search engine development, their greatest achievement was GMail which is integrated with Google Documents and also Google Talk (Gtalk). Everything can be done in one dashboard. And if you +1 a search result, that would be linked to your profile, and people will know what searches you like. In fact, Google+ seems to be that final cumulative integration point for all these separate applications for people to use.

Not quite ready for the World Heavyweight Championship

While I might tout the praises of Google+ and the search engine giant’s accomplishments in putting together a good attempt at a social network (and perhaps a social strategy too), I would like to stress that this is by no means ready for the big time. Sure, you can believe people saying that it’s a “Facebook-killer”, but like those that say the next phone will be an “iPhone-killer”, it’s just talk. When you get to use Google+, you’re going to experience why I pause when I fully commit to using Google+. And here the main reason? It’s a novice attempt that still lacks full aggregation and integration to make it truly useful to the masses.

It’s true…right now you can’t really leverage Twitter, YouTube, Flickr or any other major social network to have it drop into your stream and share with your friends. If you post a new video up on YouTube, you can’t have it auto-populate on your site for comment. And if you’re thinking of posting new photos onto your profile, you’re going to also need to create an album from Google+. You’re not able to simply share photos from your Flickr photostream or any other network. It’s just double the work and it becomes very tedious and meaningless for people to want to use the network. HOWEVER, should the Google+ team decide to open their service up and allow applications to take advantage of their API, then I don’t see how Google+ could not compete vigorously with the likes of Facebook, LinkedIn and Skype.

Google +1's tab

But what about +1? Yes, the thing that people can +1 on search results? Well it is definitely Google’s way of defining Facebook’s “like” system. But it offers a curious approach with the introduction of Google+. When on Google+, you +1 something, it is defined as a “like”. But if on a search engine result, you +1 it, then it becomes placed in a special page on your Google Profile – a tab labeled “+1’s” (see above). So if you +1 a TechCrunch post or on ESPN or wherever, what happens to it then? Does it become added to the +1 tab on your profile and not shown on your Google+ stream? It has multiple roles and what needs to be cleared up is how does one interpret the +1 button that they are pushing out to third-party websites to help in the sharing.

And then there’s the noise. Right now there’s a bit of noise taking place on Google+ and that’s not even the full public access yet – they’re still in beta form. But once the general public is allowed to join, then there will surely be too much noise to even use the site in a functional manner. Why? Because Google has made a hybrid social network where not only can your friends share your experiences with you, but so can total strangers (think “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”). Perhaps that’s the best use of Circles where you can specifically target it, but privacy will emerge and I’m sure that in the beginning stages, you’re going to see a few “mistakes” made on Google+ where something that was meant for a specific Circle got shared – and on Google, when something gets shared, it gets placed into the public space.  So noise filtering and privacy concerns should be something further addressed before Google+ gains any more credibility.

So out with the bad…what’s the business view?

Yes, there is a business side of Google+, Virginia. And that will be the topic of my next post which I will link here. But we will look at what other blogs are saying and how interesting and compelling the service is to brands and why they should be on the site – in fact, some already are.

By Ken Yeung

Ken Yeung is a journalist fascinated with the tech industry and internet culture. He's currently Flipboard's Assistant Managing Editor, overseeing news curation in technology, science, gaming and health. In addition to his day job, Ken's the co-host of "The Created Economy" podcast, examining the Creator Economy. In a past life, he was a former reporter for VentureBeat and The Next Web, covering tech startups, the industry's innovations and funding.