Hands on: Google+ review
5th Jul 2011 | 14:00
Our early verdict on Google's big social push
Circles and sharing
Google has made its big move into social networking. Only we've been here before, several times over. Google Buzz, Google Wave, Orkut, Google Profile, Jaiku, Google Friend Connect and Dodgeball – all have been Google products that have had variable degrees of success.
So why is Google bothering? Because it needs social more than ever to better target us with ads and search results. Indeed Google is losing any grip it had on the real-time internet. Facebook and Twitter have become so strong, while in the field of IM, voice and video it's Microsoft that has built on the success of MSN and Windows Live with its acquisition of Skype.
You can check out TechRadar's first look video of Google+ right here:
So how does Google expect to compete with all of them? Google+ is the answer. But how to get a Google+ invite? Well, unfortunately you'll probably have to wait. At the time of writing, the service is restricted and you'll need somebody to invite you to get onto the service at plus.google.com.
Before we go on, it's worth saying that it's early days for Google+, so expect Google to continuously improve it as the months go on. Don't think of this as anything like finished. Here's the homepage.
When you enter the service, you'll see three panels like this. But don't be fooled by these - the magic buttons are actually along the top. The key features are Stream, Photos, Profile and Circles - more on all of those in a moment.
The core part of the service (thus far) revolves around contributing to a Facebook-style newsfeed (called the Stream) and adding friends from your Google Contacts into different groups, known as Circles which can be called anything you want.
You can then drag people into the Circles to effectively sort them into contact groups - more on why we're doing this in a minute.
While the Circles concept is brilliant – without it Google+ would look rather weak – there are a few problems with creating Circles and making contacts. You can search contacts, but people that aren't yet on Google+ are just web searches rather than searches of Google+.
After an initial period of picking up obvious contacts such as work colleagues, subsequent Contact Suggestions are poor. Indeed, to find people we knew, we were relegated to looking at the friends of friends we did have on Google+ to add more people. There's definitely a lot more work to do here.
Here's our Colleagues circle - you can search within the circle or remove people at any time.
Google also represents Circles graphically, so you can drag your contacts onto them.
So what's the point of all this? It means you can share updates with individual Circles and combinations of Circles – so if you posted a holiday picture, you can share it with your friends and not your colleagues, for example. Or, if you wanted to send a link about a current work task with the relevant people, you can simply share it with your Colleagues rather than your wider friends.
This is the key play; being able to keep personal and work separate in a way that Facebook currently can't – expect Facebook to work on offering similar options soon.
You can also filter your Stream to see updates from individual circles only as well as move people between Circles at will. And you can have people in more than one Circle – say, Colleagues and Friends.
Sharing is easy and enables you to incorporate images, links, video, location and more. But while Circles is innovative, the process of sharing isn't.
In its blog post to introduce Google+, Google's Vic Gundotra said the following: "Today, the connections between people increasingly happen online. Yet the subtlety and substance of real-world interactions are lost in the rigidness of our online tools. In this basic, human way, online sharing is awkward. Even broken. And we aim to fix it."
But Google+ doesn't do this in any way. In what way is the sharing in Google+ a better system than that on Twitter? Or Facebook? Google's claimed raison d'être for Google+ doesn't make sense.
Google+ just gives us another social networking service rather than becoming a TweetDeck or Seesmic-style facilitator sitting between existing services. There's no option here to share anything with Twitter or Facebook at the same time, for example, though you can still pull that stuff in using Buzz.
The real Achilles heel is the dependence on Google Contacts – because we don't have an Android phone but do have a Gmail account, years of broken and poorly maintained contacts were pulled into the service. If Google is serious about using Google Contacts everywhere, it needs to give us the tools to improve them rather than just removing duplicates.
By the way, new updates that are shared with you by people not inside your circles are displayed on an Incoming page.
Profiles, Sparks and Hangout
Google+ does incorporate some other Google Services such as Picasa Web Albums (you can choose whether or not to link to your existing albums or not), while there's full location information (like Facebook Places) but powered by Google Latitude.
You can also add videos from YouTube or upload them directly from Google+. Google Talk is also integrated into the sidebar (it's not branded as that at all and is just called Chat). There's also total dedication to Google+1 – you can +1 any updates on the service (like Facebook's like button) or reshare anything.
Well, most things – there's a clever option to disable resharing on anything you post to ensure it doesn't go beyond your chosen person or Circle. A great little touch. There's no twitter-style direct messaging – though you could share an update with just one person.
The Photos section of Google+ is quite basic at the moment - here it's simply pulled in our albums from Picassa Web Albums. You can also view Photos from your Circles - which initially will just be most people's profile pictures.
You also have a personal Profile page (which replaces your standard Google Profile). Unless you choose to prevent it, your Profile is searchable on the web and comes high up in personal web searches. Our advice? Make sure it's sanitised.
Here's our public profile.
Once you're signed up to the service, Google+ appears in the toolbar at the top of Google search pages as well as in Gmail and other services that Google provides.
This is the biggest indication that Google is serious about Plus – it's deeply integrated into the core Google experience in a way that Wave and the rest just weren't – you even get Facebook-style notifications in the Google nav bar too as well as a box that enables you to share something instantly.
Google Buzz is present on your Profile Page and appears to be the way Google intends for you to import other services into your profile – there's currently no other way to have a feed of your Tweets, for example. Google+ does keeps emailing you notifications like Buzz, though there are some options for these – we've chosen to filter them in Gmail instead.
It's not all about competing with Facebook though - an interesting feature is Hangout, which enables you to group video chat with your contacts as well as group instant message and share funny YouTube videos – these play within the hangout.
First you need to install the Google voice and video plug-in if you don't have it already.
Then you can Hangout in a shared window with an IM chat window at the side.
You're also able to watch YouTube videos at the same time. Hangout is OK, but we think you're much more likely to use Skype for this kind of thing.
Then there's a bit of an odd feature called Sparks. It's essentially a refined version of Google search that enables you to access things of interest on a particular topic.
You add your interests and off you go. Unfortunately in this early implementation of Google+, the focus seems off kilter and, far from being the "feed of highly contagious content" promised by Google, the feeds we searched for contained a lot of content with poor interest levels. A search for Manchester United, for example, piled on the summer transfer talk but also added some rubbish wallpaper links. Must do better.
Google+ on Mobile
As well as being web-based and available on the mobile web, there's an Android app for the service and one for iPhone and iPad is in the pipeline – indeed, we hear it's already been submitted to the App Store for approval.
Here's what the mobile web version looks like on the iPad. Again it has the key components of Google+ as well as Notifications.
And here's what the Stream looks like - pretty standard.
However, the Android app is a little better in terms of design.
The Android app can instantly upload web-optimised photos to Google+ (called Instant Upload). You can uncheck this if you don't want it - presumably the iOS app will be able to do the same.
Here's the main screen of the Android app...
...where you might have noticed Huddles, basically instant messaging between mobiles. This is very easy to use, but don't get it confused with Hangout which, at the moment, isn't for mobile use.
And here's the Notifications display....
...and the Stream. It's all rather well designed, and it's easy to update your status as well as add media and share your location. A lot of time has been spent on this app and it'll be worth it. Mobile use will make or break Google+.
Google+: What we think
As a fully fledged social networking service, Google+ isn't there yet. But then it's not meant to be – this is an early version and there will be a lot more to come. Geotagging, for example, is an area currently underdeveloped but that Google will surely spin its Latitude service into.
However, there is a harsh truth here. If Google thinks it has reinvented the social wheel with Google+, it is extremely mistaken. Google+ doesn't go that far into the territory of reinvention – this is a competent rehash of social networking - and of Facebook for that matter - but it's still social networking as we know it. Google+ does precious little that people can't get on Facebook - with the honourable exception of Circles.
The Circles feature is cool, but it's not a reason to swap out your Facebook profile. Twitter is another headache for Google – there is nothing here to rival it, but that probably isn't its intention. After all, while Twitter itself knows relatively little about people, Facebook knows a lot about each and every one of us that has a profile – it's this strength in being able to tailor ads, services, searches and more that Google wants to replicate.
Google+ is a compelling way of sharing content with specific groups of people (expect Facebook to intro such a feature as soon as it can be done). And since we joined on Friday, we've found a lot of tech types have joined the service and started sharing stuff. Maybe it could well have a groundswell of support from the early adopter community. But is that enough?
It could be. But the success of Google+ will depend on one thing – how many friends you have on it and what contact you make with people. If your friends all leave Facebook, so will you. But is that likely now that Facebook has become such an integral part of many of our lives?
Some people have growing privacy concerns over Facebook sharing, but despite those behind Google+ saying that security and privacy is of utmost concern, people just don't want to put all their eggs in one basket.
As people aren't that enthused to have all their services run by Microsoft or Facebook, the same goes for Google.
Google will hope that Google+'s deep integration into the Google nav bar and other services (not Google Apps as yet we notice) will encourage takeup and we wouldn't bet against Google becoming a third large social player behind Facebook and Twitter. But it needs to have some more compelling features to add to Circles before it can think about having that level of strength.
Liked this? Then check out Google+: everything you need to know
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