Yesterday was a big day for Google. The company launched a wave of new and updated products, but the focus was clearly on the (unexpected) launch of Google+. Until now, Google forays into social networking were generally lackluster (except for in Brazil, where Orkut continues to be popular). After the failure of Buzz, Google+ is the company’s most ambitious social networking play yet. After spending a day with the product, it’s clear that Google’s teams learned from the mistakes they made with Buzz and finally put together a social networking service that can compete.
Google put a massive amount of effort behind this tool, but many of its parts still remain unconnected and scattered across Google’s various properties (the +1 buttons, for example, aren’t connected to your stream yet). Google+, however, gives us a first glimpse at what a lot of these parts could look like once they become integrated into one cohesive unit. What exactly this final product will look like still remains to be seen, but the basic building blocks are now in place.
How Google Got it Right
After using it for a day, here are some of the things Google got right with Google+:
Limited Launch: The launches of Buzz and Wave were major media events. With Google+, the company decided to do a limited launch by talking to a few reporters and then keeping invites to a bare minimum. The people on Wave today are mostly tech enthusiasts who are willing to put up with the occasional bug.
Focus on Privacy: Google’s ideas about privacy killed Buzz. Even though the Buzz team quickly reacted and fixed most of these issues, these problems cemented the public’s view that Google can’t be trusted when it comes to keeping personal data private.
With Circles (the equivalent of Facebook’s groups), Google decided to give its users total control over these aspects of Google+. The closest Google gets to recommending people is by offering the ability to organize your contacts by “relevance.” In line with this, your Circles/lists are also completely empty when you start using Google+.
Flexible Relationships: The core idea behind Google+ and Circles is that you want to share different things with different groups, so sharing can be managed on a very granular level.
Just as importantly, though, Google also adopted a Twitter like “follow” model as well, that allows you to see all the public updates from any Google+ user you follow.
Sharing is Always Explicit: As Louis Gray notes, Google – at least for the time being – did away with one major annoyance that usually crops up in any social network: auto-shared content. Google+ doesn’t allow you to pull in any RSS feeds, Twitter updates or similar data. Instead, if you want to share something on Google+, you have to do so explicitly. This is keeping the discussions lively, prevents lots of duplicate posts and keeps the noise down.
Cohesive Mobile and Web Experience: One of the most frustrating aspects of using Buzz was that the mobile and Web experiences were completely different and each offered only a subset of the complete feature set. With Google+, the exceptions – location-based checkins on the phone, “Huddle” for text-based group chats on the go and “Hangouts” for video chats on the web – make sense. Chances are, even those exceptions will disappear over time.
Built-In Photo Sharing: Thanks to Instagram and Co., photo sharing is a hot topic right now and Google+ builds it right into the service. You can connect your Picasa albums (one of the few explicit connections to other Google tools from Google+ right now), but more importantly, you can instantly share photos from your Android phone with whatever circle of friends you choose. As Sarah Perez points out on ReadWriteWeb, this feature alone could encourage adoption by mainstream users.
Design: Google isn’t known for good design, but the Google+ interface generally gets out of your way and makes using it easy. You don’t need a user guide for figuring out how to use it. There are plenty of features that aren’t always obvious, but those don’t take away from the generally high usability of the tool.
Does That Mean Google+ Will be Huge Mainstream Hit?
Google, of course, didn’t get everything 100% right yet (there are still some bugs, issues with duplication when posts are re-shared and the Sparks news discovery tool feels limited), but overall, I think Google is moving in the right direction.
The real question, though, is if mainstream users will adopt Google+. They clearly didn’t care for Buzz, but Google+ is different enough and less of a FriendFeed clone to hopefully attract enough users.
Will it be different enough from Facebook, though, to encourage people to switch? That remains to be seen. Google always has the advantage of being able to get a few million users to give its tools a try. Buzz, however, also showed that this doesn’t mean they will stick around.
For the time being, Google+ is fun – it’s the newest, coolest toy in the early adopter toolkit. The real test will come when Google opens it up to the world and mainstream users will have to decide whether they want to defect from Facebook, use Google+ is parallel with it, or just ignore Google’s latest foray into social networking.