SiliconFilter

Google Moves Its Hangouts API Out Of Preview

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Google has been very conservative about releasing APIs for Google+ and may not even release a full read/write API for its social network before the end of this year. The one API the Google+ team has put its weight behind, though, is the Hangouts API, which gives developers access to Google+’s video chat features. Today, the company announced that it is taking this API out of preview. This means developers can now launch and share their hangout apps with the Google+ community. To launch this feature, Google has partnered with a number of developers, including Aces HangoutCacooScoot & DoodleSlideshare and Clubhouse Challenge by Bravo.

A simple click on the Google+ hangout button on these sites opens up a standard Google Hangout with the respective application running inside the same window. You can now also find these apps in the new “Apps” pane in Google+ Hangouts.

Google is rolling this feature out right now, so it may take a bit before it becomes available in your account.

Google, which has been struggling to get users to adopt Google+ as a social network, has long been pushing these video chats as a differentiating feature for its service. It’s not clear how much adoption this feature has seen on Google+ itself (even as video chats become more common, most people still feel very self-conscious on camera, after all). By effectively decoupling hangouts from the social networking aspects of Google+, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of productivity apps and games will adopt this feature now. Google, as far as I can see, isn’t charging developers for this tool and adding video chat tends to be a costly feature for developers.



8:57 am


Google Launches Street View-Based Travel Guide to Japan

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Just in time for the cherry blossom season in Japan, Google today launched what it calls a “new visual travel guide” for the country. This new interactive guide, which Google created in cooperation with the Japan Tourism Agency and the Japan National Tourism Organization, is based on Google’s street view images and allows you to visit eight distinct areas in Japan (though it’s worth nothing that four of these are actually in Tokyo, including the city’s famous fish market and the Ahikabara and Ginza shopping districts).

The guide, it is worth noting, also features some indoor imagery, as well as the ability to virtually stroll through some of the country’s famous gardens. Besides the obvious Street View feature and sightseeing suggestions, the guide also features restaurant, hotel and shopping recommendations – all of which feature indoor Street View images and a bit of information about the establishment.

According to Google, the guide features 339 locations – including “26 great cherry blossom viewing spots.” The guide is available in English, Japanese, Korean and Chinese.

It will be interesting to see if Google plans to expand this program to cover other countries as well. While there are a number of third-party sites that use Street View to augment their travel guides, this guide for Japan is actually Google’s first foray into using this feature for a home-grown travel guide. The fact that the company calls this an “edition,” though, provides a hint that more of these guides may be in the works.



9:31 am


What to Expect from Firefox in 2012: SPDY, Quiet Updates, Better Web Apps

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Last year, Mozilla managed to get Firefox back on track. While the long delay of Firefox 4 gave competitors like the up-and-coming Google Chrome a chance to gain quite a bit of market share, Mozilla adapted to the changing environment and switched to a Chrome-like rapid-release schedule that is focused on releasing a new version every six weeks. Given these short release cycles, it's good to keep the larger picture in view sometimes and, thankfully, Mozilla today provided us with a nice overview of what we can expect from Firefox for the rest of the year.

The organization has discussed most of these plans before, but it's good to take another look at what's in store for the popular browser.

A SPDYer Browser

Among the highlights Firefox's users can look forward to is default support for Google's SPDY protocol that speeds up the communication between your browser and web servers. In the current version (11), SPDY is not enable by default, but you can turn it on by browsing to about:config and doing a search for spdy.enabled.

In addition, Mozilla also plans to turn on HTTP pipelining by default. This allows the browser to download different elements of a site in parallel, which should speed things up, especially for sites that don't yet support the SPDY protocol.

Silent Updates

Mozilla also plans to bring silent updates to Firefox. This means, you will never have to see another update dialog again. Instead, Firefox will just update itself automatically, just like Chrome currently does. The development team plans to launch this feature in version 13.

Better Web Apps

As for web apps, Mozilla wants to integrate them more deeply into the browser. This means support for Mozilla's online app store, which is scheduled to launch later this year, but also a lot of work on the backend, including support for Mozilla's identity solution, an install process for web apps and the ability for apps to run in the background.

This, of course, is only the tip of the iceberg. You can find a full list of the features Mozilla has planned for this year here.



9:34 am


First Come, First Serve: Google I/O Registration to Open March 27th at 7am PT

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Google I/O is Google's premier annual conference for developers and last year, the event sold out in less than an hour. After postponing the event and expanding it to three days, Google just announced that tickets will go on sale on March 27th at 7am PT. Once again, developers will have to get in line early, though, as registration will be on a first-come, first-serve basis. Last year, Google hinted at a new registration process where developers would have to solve programming puzzles to be eligible for tickets. Now it looks like the company has moved away from this idea.

One issue a lot of developers have with the first-come, first-serve nature of registration for this event has been the fact that a lot of attendees at developer conferences are now often not developers themselves. I/O, where Google has developed a tendency to give away a lot of pricey gadgets that are often worth more than the ticket fee, has become somewhat notorious for this. 

Tickets for I/O will cost $900 for general attendees and $300 for students and university faculty members.

Here are some more details from Google: [list]

  • Registration will open first-come, first-serve on March 27th at 7 AM PDT / 14:00 UTC.
  • Rooms at the W Hotel are currently going for $279. Limited time offer, while supplies last.
  • Code Labs have graduated from Bootcamp and will now be incorporated into our 3-day agenda.
  • This year’s After Hours theme is Carnival 2112.
  • Real-time transcription (CART) will be provided live during the keynote and some breakout sessions.[/list]

It's also worth noting that you will need to have a Google+ account to register and that you will have to use Google Wallet to pay for your registration.



9:33 am


Study: Two-Thirds of Search Engine Users Don’t Want Personalized Results

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According to a new study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, most Internet users are, overall, quite happy with the results they find with their preferred search engines. One thing they don't like, though, is that these search engines are tracking them. Only 29% of search engine users in this study say that it's a good thing that these companies are tracking their searches and other information to personalize their results. A full 65% think that's a bad thing and 73% say that it's not okay for a search engine to track their searches.

Virtually the same numbers also apply to targeted advertising, where 67% say they don't want their online behavior to be tracked and only 28% say that they are fine with this.

Google, of course, has been making a major push by integrating personalized results very deeply into its search results through its "Search, Plus Your World" initiative.

It's worth noting, though, that younger search engine users are somewhat less concerned about being tracked (56%) and about their information being used to personalize search results.

There is also an interesting racial divide here, where 70% of white users are concerned about the so-called filter bubble and think it's a bad thing for search engines to limit "the information you get online and what search results you see." Among black and Hispanic search engine users, that number is only about 50%.

Most Don't Know How to Limit Online Tracking

Even though most people really don't like to be tracked, though, it's interesting that only 38% of respondents in this survey think they know how to limit the amount of information that websites are collecting about them. Most of them, for example, have deleted their web history (81%) and used the privacy settings of websites (75%).

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9:14 am


Study: Pinterest Now Drives More Referral Traffic Than Twitter

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It looks like 2012 will be Pinterest's year to shine. Even if it's not your cup of tea, you can't ignore that fact that it is one of the fastest growing startups ever. According to the latest data from online sharing tool Shareaholic, Pinterest has now reached the point where it drives more referral traffic to other sites than Twitter. This puts it right behind Google, Facebook, Yahoo and StumbleUpon with regards to referral and search traffic. Just a month ago, Twitter still beat Pinterest by a very thin margin.

Shareaholic's data is based upon analytics from 200,000 publishers in its catalog which reach about 270 million unique visitors per month. 

Pinterest, of course, is meant to be a site that gets people to click through to third-party sites, but it's interesting that this small startup is already leaving Twitter far behind at this point. What remains interesting, too, is how StumbleUpon continues to quietly dominate these statistics.

Shareaholic doesn't specify what types of sites these services are referring traffic to, but chances are that Pinterest and Twitter are aiming for slightly different audiences. 

Google+ is Doing About as Well as Yahoo Answers…

Besides Pinterest and Twitter, the report also takes a look at how Google+ is doing with regard to how much referral traffic it generates. The numbers there are not very encouraging. According to Shareaholic's data, "referral traffic from Google Plus held steady at .05% of all traffic from January to February. For context, that’s the same percentage of traffic referred by Yahoo Answers."



9:30 am


Those Pretty Maps in Apple’s New iPhoto for iOS? That’s OpenStreetMap

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After Apple launched its new photo for iOS yesterday, a number of eagle-eyed users quickly noticed that the company stopped using Google Maps in the application and switched to what, at first, seemed like its own product. It turns out, however, that at least outside of the U.S., the company is using data from the collaboratively edited OpenStreetMap project. The problem with this is that a) Apple isn’t giving credit to OpenStreetMap and b) that the data is actually over a year old. While data from OpenStreetMap is available for use in third-party applications, the group requires attribution under a Creative Commons license.

Here is a nice little hack that allows you to compare Apple’s maps with data from OpenStreetMap and Google.

In a somewhat passive-aggressive statement, OpenStreetMap’s Jonathan Bennett notes that the data Apple is using is from April 2010 and that it is “also missing the necessary credit to OpenStreetMap’s contributors.” OpenStreetMap, however, is looking “forward to working with Apple to get that [the credit] on there.”

Over the years, there have been quite a few rumors about Apple launching its own mapping product and its still not clear where Apple is getting its U.S. maps from. In Europe and other parts of the world, though, it looks like the company is taking a bit of a shortcut and is implicitly claiming credit for data that doesn’t belong to it. What is clear, though, is that Apple is definitely working on replacing Google Maps across its product range.



7:26 am


Google Gives Its +1 Buttons a New Design

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Few people, I’m sure, have complained about the design of the company’s ubiquitous +1 buttons. Today, however, Google is launching a new design for the +1 button. In order to provide a consistent design across its properties, the new buttons will look similar to the new red and white Google+ icon. As usual, Google is now rolling this new design out to its Google+ Platform Preview Group for testing and will likely roll it out to the public within the next few days.

Even though it’s not clear how successful Google+ actually is, there can be little doubt that the +1 buttons have quickly become widespread across the web.

plus_one_new_buttonIf you are currently using a +1 button on your site, you won’t have to do anything to your setup. The new design will automatically appear on your site once Google flips the switch.

Google is also making this change on Google+ itself, where the reaction to this change so far has been somewhat mixed.

plus_one_button



11:05 am


Come On Google, Show Us Some Real Google+ User Numbers Already

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Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that things aren't looking so great for Google+. According to data from comScore, Google+'s users spend just about 3 minutes per month on the site. On Facebook, that number is closer to six or seven hours per month. Google itself, however, has never provided anybody with any useful data about the service and – at worst – is just using deliberately misleading information to provide the press with big numbers that look good but are absolutely meaningless.

100 Million "Active" Users?

In January, for example the company's CEO Larry Page said that the site had 90 million users at that time and that "+users are very engaged with our products — over 60% of them engage daily, and over 80% weekly." That, however, was a pretty misleading statement. While it may sound that Page was saying that 60% of Google+ users come back to Google+ every day, his argument was simply that 60% of those users who signed up for Google+ also use any other Google+ service on a daily basis. Those numbers said absolutely nothing about the engagement Google+ is seeing from its users.

Today, Google's VP for engineering Vic Gundotra – in what is clearly a reaction to the WSJ piece – talked to the New York Times' Nick Bilton and once again used the same kind of tactic. "On a daily basis, 50 million people who have created a Google Plus account actively use the company’s Google Plus-enhanced products, Mr. Gundotra said. Over a 30-day period, he said, that number is 100 million active users." Google+, of course, is now part of virtually every other Google product, including search, which most of the company's users probably use on a daily basis without ever trying to actively engage with the company's social network.

Nice, Meaningless Numbers

Google is obviously trying to paint a nice picture here by using large numbers that, at the end of the day, say nothing about Google+ and how engaged its users are. Maybe things are great at Google+ and it has a huge, highly active community (though most of us aren't seeing it in our own accounts). The problem with this is that unless Google provides us with any concrete data, it just looks as if the company has something to hide.



1:56 pm


Just in Time for Super Tuesday, Google Updates its U.S. Elections Site With Better Maps

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Today is one of the most important days in the run-up to the Republican convention in Tampa in August. With 10 states holding primaries at the same time, a less than stellar showing today could mark the beginning of the end for some of the Republican candidates. Just in time for this so-called Super Tuesday, Google has updated its Politics & Elections site with an upgraded visualization of past results and real-time updates from today's contest.

As Google notes, the updated map "lets you track both the state-by-state numbers as well as the results by county, with delegate counts in addition to raw numbers and percentages from the AP." The updated maps then provide users with a bit more detail than before, though the overall design hasn't changed too much.

Google is obviously putting a lot of emphasis on this election cycle. The company's video-sharing site YouTube, for example, will play host to the Washington Post's live video coverage of today's primaries and the company regularly provides pundits with updated graphics based on search volume across its network.



8:27 am


Mobile Security Takes a Front Row Seat at MWC

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Not too long ago, nobody really worried too much about mobile security. The worst thing that could really happen to your data on your phone, most people thought, was that you would lose the physical device and somebody could make calls or browse your address book. Today, however, with the proliferation of mobile malware that can do anything from downloading your contacts list to a remote server to sending you pricey premium SMS messages, as well as a general trend toward letting employees use a mobile phone of their own choosing, the issue of mobile security have become far more pressing. This trend was clearly on display at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, where numerous well-known security firms and even more startups showed off their latest products.

Security and Android

Most of these security products today focus on Android. To some degree, Google's mobile operating system provides the perfect breeding ground for malware, as its open nature allows users to install apps from numerous sources and stores besides Google's official app store. It's far easier then for a malware developer to create an app that exploits flaws in Android's security and get it into circulation than it would be for somebody who wants to create iPhone or iPad malware. Apple, after all, only lets users download from one store and exercises complete control over it.

Kindsight security demo

Earlier this week, I had a chance to talk to Brendan Ziolo, the VP of marketing at Kindsight. The Alcatel-Lucent spin-off provides desktop and mobile security products, but here in Barcelona, the company focused on its newly released mobile security tools for Android.

While there are now numerous Android security tools available, Kindsight takes a somewhat different approach than most of its competitors, as it also works directly with mobile carriers to provide both software to end-users that can scan a phone for known malware as well as detection software that runs on the carrier's servers. The company is working with a number of mobile operators to bring its tools to their users and there is a good chance that you will find its software on your phone at some point in the future. Given the nature of these deals, though, you may never know that it's Kindsight that is running in the background (the carriers are more likely to give it their own name).

What Hackers Can do With Your Compromised Phone

Ziolo showed me a demo of a malware app the company developed for Android. Just by installing a malware-infested clone of Angry Birds, a hacker could – within seconds of starting the app – start spamming your friends with SMS messages, download your address book, locate you and even get access to your phone's camera and see a live stream from it without you ever noticing it.

With the company's software running, of course, users quickly get an alert about what is happening and can then uninstall the application. The scan on the phone itself is similar to a standard anti-virus or malware scan you would run on your desktop. At the same time, the company's software on your carrier's servers also keeps an eye out for suspicious traffic and can even detect some malware it has never seen before.

While there has been some discussion over how widespread the Android malware problem really is today, most reports indicate that it's growing quite rapidly. As Kindsight's Ziolo also rightly pointed out, unlike the early days of desktop malware, hackers can now rely on an established infrastructure for selling personal information and other data, making the whole business even more attractive and lucrative for these criminals.



8:31 am


For Qualcomm, Making Mobile Browsing Better Starts at the Chip Level

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When it comes to browser performance, we tend to talk a lot about what browser developers like Microsoft, Google and Mozilla can do to render web pages faster and make complex web apps like Gmail run smoother. Especially in the mobile world, though, there is a level of optimization that's happening at the level of the actual chips that are responsible for making your phone or tablet tick. That optimization is happening both in the design of the chips, as well as how the operating system talks to them. Yesterday, at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, I had a chance to sit down with Sy Choudhury, who leads Qualcomm’s Web Technologies initiative. For the most part, our chat focused on what chip makers can do to improve the mobile browsing experience, as well as the increasing importance of HTML5 in the mobile world (HTML5, at its core, is a set of technologies that allow developers to create highly-interactive web applications that look and feel just like regular desktop software).

Qualcomm, which is mostly known for producing the processors and chipsets that run a larger percentage of the world's mobile phone, is working together closely with both the Android and Chrome teams at Google to make your browsing experience on your mobile phone or tablet better. The company, of course, is also working together with other vendors, including Microsoft, but most of the optimization work is currently being done on the Android platform.

The difference between an optimized version of Android and the reference version from Google can often be quite dramatic. In Qualcomm's tests, for example, web pages render 20-30% faster in the optimized version and JavaScript programs are executed 70% faster. Qualcomm also optimized its processors to decode pictures faster, which leads to about a 25% improvement in rendering speed for JPEG images.

As Choudhury told me, this optimization happens at virtually all of the levels of the experience, most of which most users never think about. This ranges from how the browser talks to the network, to how it uses your phone's graphics hardware to make sure video plays without stuttering and all the way up to how your browser interprets JavaScript, the language most complex web pages today are written in.

Qualcomm browser web speed html5

Qualcomm is showing a number of impressive demos at the Mobile World Congress this week to demonstrate this work, including an Instagram-like photo-sharing application that lives in the browser. In another demo, the company is showing the difference between an HTML5-based game that has access to the graphics card and one that doesn't. Unsurprisingly, the one that doesn't use the tablet's graphics hardware directly features mediocre performance while the other runs just as smooth as a native app.

With Great Power Comes Worse Power Consumption

All this power, though, always comes with a trade-off – and more often than not, that trade-off is power consumption. For companies like Qualcomm and its partners, finding the right balance between those two poles isn't always easy. According to Choudhury, though, small tweaks can often make a big difference. Qualcomm, for example, changed how often the network chip shuts down when it is not in use and just a small change like this can lead to power savings of close to 7% under some circumstances.

Who Needs Apps When The Browser Can Do All Of This?

Qualcomm, of course, is also a member of the Core Mobile Web Platform Group Facebook announced at the Mobile World Congress earlier this week. In Choudhury's view, now that websites can access your phone's camera, display videos and render even games without the need for Flash and do so smoothly and without the user ever really having to think about what technology an app uses, there is almost no need for native apps anymore.

Qualcomm’s Web Technologies initiative
 


7:30 am


The Future According to Eric Schmidt

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Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt took the stage at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this afternoon to talk about the role of technology in the “world we live in today” and how it will shape the societies of the future. Schmidt, for example, noted that the number of people who use smartphones is still very small, but “think how amazing the web is today with just 2 billion people” and what will happen when another 5 billion get online.

The Future According to Eric Schmidt

In Schmidt’s vision, societies will be split into three strata in the future and will be divided by how they use technology and how much access to it they have.

The privileged few, the hyper-connected, are likely to face a future that will only be limited by what technology can do. They will have access to unlimited processing power and high-speed networks in most major cities.

In Schmidt’s vision, this group will soon be represented by robots at multiple events at the same time while sitting in your office. For them, technologies that once looked like science fiction, will soon be available. Driverless cars, for example, will soon reduce accidents. At the same time, though, technology will actually become much easier to use and ideally just disappear.

Besides these high-connected folks, though, another group, which will also be well-connected but less so than the first group, will form the new global middle class in Schmidt’s future. This group, though, will use cheaper technologies for its work – though its members will focus less on building new services and products – and maybe use simpler technologies for telepresence, but still use technology effectively to do their jobs. This group, in Schmidt’s view, will also be made up of more sophisticated consumers and those who will be smart about using the Internet to organize politically.

A third group, though, will have no or only limited access to the Internet. This “aspiring majority,” as Schmidt calls them, will likely have some form of access to technology, but it will look different from what we expect today. Maybe, though, they will use mesh networks to create local networks that isn’t even connected to the wider Internet. For Schmidt, it seems, mesh networks represent the easiest and cheapest way to get these underprivileged users at least partly online.

What this will make possible, too, is for these users to share their experiences with the rest of the world, whether that’s a political uprising or a famine.

There will, however, in Schmidt’s view, still be elites and this digital divide will likely exist for quite a while. Technology, however will enable “the weak to get stronger and those with nothing will have something.”

Technologists will have to act now, though, to ensure that everybody will be able to participate in this future where everybody will be connected.

Ice Cream Sandwich and Chrome for Android

Very little about today’s keynote was focused on specific technologies, with the exception of Chrome for Android and the latest version of Android.

Talking about Ice Cream Sandwich, the most recent version of Android, Schmidt noted that he thought Google finally got the user interface right ‘for a global audience’ and stressed that most reviewers agreed with him. Implicit in this, of course, is an acknowledgement that earlier versions of Android weren’t quite as polished.

Schmidt was joined on stage by Hugo Barra of the Android development team at Google. Barra provided a demo of Chrome for Android, the mobile version of Chrome the company announced a few weeks ago. Schmidt used this opportunity to take a brief jab at other mobile operating system by calling Android “a real mobile operating system.” Barra demoed a number of the browser’s top features, including pre-loading, link preview, syncing between mobile and desktop, as well as the fact that Chrome doesn’t limit how many tabs you can have open at the same time.

 



10:14 am


Google Voice Gets the Google+ Circles Treatment

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I have my doubts about Google's drive to add Google+ features to each and every one of its apps and services, but here is a new Google+-related feature that actually makes perfect sense: starting today, Google Voice – the company's VoIP telephony service – will integrate with your Google+ circles.

Here is how Google describes this feature: "Circles give you more control over how you manage your callers; for example, calls from your “Creepers” circle can be sent straight to Voicemail, only your “College Buddies” circle will hear you rap your voicemail greeting, or you can set your “Family” circle to only ring your mobile phone."

Depending on how you use Google+, this is indeed a really useful new feature, especially given that Google makes it very easy to set rules and even different voicemail greetings for every different caller.

Sadly, No Circles Interface in Google Voice

It's worth noting that this doesn't mean you can now drag and drop your contacts into different circles, though. Instead, this feature is actually a bit hidden in the Google Voice contacts settings (click on Contacts, then select a group, then click on Edit Google Voice Settings.

Chances are, if you follow a lot of people on Google+, just a few of these are likely to ever call you. This feature, then, is probably more interesting for those who are either very meticulous about how they organize their Google+ circles and those who use it as a very personal social network and less like Twitter or Facebook.

 



10:55 am


Sharing to Google+ from Third-Party Sites Will Soon Become a One-Click Affair

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How popular (or not) Google+ really is remains debatable, but there can be little doubt that there aren’t a lot of sites on the web left that don’t feature a Google+ button. That button has two functions. It lets you +1 a page and, with a second click, you can also bring up the Google+ sharing box and share that page with your friends on Google+. Google is about to make a subtle change in this flow very soon, however. Instead of having to click twice to bring up the sharing box, it will soon pop up automatically. Chances are, this will greatly increase the numbers of news stories and other items shared on Google+ in the near future.

Easier Google+ Sharing

Google made this announcement to its Google+ platform preview group earlier today. Usually Google+ updates that affect third-party sites are tested among the members of the platform preview group for a few days before they are released to the public.

Easier Google+ Following

sf_following_circleIn addition to this, Google will also update its Facebook-like Google+ badges. Here, too, Google is simplifying things. With the updated badges, it will just take one click to follow a Google+ page from a third-party site. This click will add a page directly to your “following” circle, though you can also bring up an optional menu to add it to other circles as well.



1:16 pm