Google+: explored from the inside

Google+ is the latest kid on the social network block, hiding behind the semi-opaque doors of the beta tag. Many managed to slip past the velvet rope before the bouncers shut things down, and like the cool kids, we’ve been on the inside partying it up for nearly a week.

We’ve already detailed much of Google+, we answered the question “What is Google+?” and we’ve examined the Google+ app for your Android phone. Here we’re going to pull it all together, tell you what you get, why it works and why it doesn’t and ultimately, whether you should be excited about it.

The first thing is getting in to Google+. You’ll need a Google account and at the moment that excludes Google Apps accounts, so if your business uses Google, you’ll find you have to use that personal account you have.

The second thing is getting in. Some invites went out, some users got to invite others and there was a back door through sharing that could be exploited (share something from within G+ with someone outside G+ and they were invited to sign-up). We’ve been trying to get more people in, but these avenues seem to have closed down, for now.

Welcome to Googleland!

Google has undergone some changes recently, most of which involve a change to the bar at the top of the page. Within Google+, this now offers your +page at the left, along with your regular Google products running on from there - Mail, Calendar, Documents, Photos, Reader, Web and More.

On the right-hand side you’ll find the settings icon, a share box, notifications box and finally your drop-down account options. It’s here you’ll find things like instant access to privacy and account settings, along with the option to view your Circles and Profile.

This bar now persists through most of Google’s services, so you’ll find it in Google Maps, Gmail and on plain old Google search pages, meaning Google+ is never far from reach, essentially every time you return to a Google page you can get notifications and react to them. It also makes an appearance in Picasaweb, but not on YouTube … yet.

The omnipresence within Google services, means that Google+ will draw you in, the alerts catch your eye and draw you into being "social". Once you're in, you almost can't help reacting to you're always in the picture.This presence helps to remind us that Google+ hasn’t just sprung out of the dirt, it is part of a widely used, existing, ecosystem which may well be instrumental in the social network’s success in the future.

Circles

It’s fitting for a social network to be held together by social circles and the Circles idea that Google+ offers is incredibly simple, so it makes sense to start here. You start life with a few default circles - Friends, Family, Acquaintances - which guide you very simply in how you construct your social world.

It tackles one of the biggest problems that people face on social networks, and that’s governing who gets to see what. You can add people to multiple Circles, you can create new Circles, you can delete Circles (gloriously animated). The Circles concept underpins the entire Google+ experience.

You don’t have to worry about your Mum viewing those stag party pictures, but you want her to see your wedding shots: a Circle for Family makes it easy to safely share the right things. Your brother gets to sit in the Family as well as Friends Circles, so he gets to see them all.

Populating Circles is a large part of what has been happening in Google+ so far. Of course, because you access Google+ from your existing Google account, you’re not starting from scratch and Google has a wealth of people to suggest to you. In essence, much of the network building is already done from your existing contacts, you just have to settle down and categorise people.

You can add people who aren’t on Google+ into Circles (thereafter indicated as email only), although we’re not exactly sure what will happen if those people decide to sign-up with a different Google account. Thereafter, non-Google+ people will be contacted via an email alert, until they get the chance to sign up. We've also seen people appearing under different email addresses, so there is perhaps the potential for some duplication - something to keep an eye on.

No one will know what the Circle they are in, so if you have a Circle called “Arseholes”, then you should in theory be safe. Twitter is famously public and Facebook, for many, is a private venture. Circles gives you the freedom to follow people as you would on Twitter, whilst sharing as you might on Facebook.

In this way Google+ is super social, because you don’t have the worry about looking like a stalker as you would when you want to be “friends” with someone on Facebook, but at the same time you have a easy method of sharing the same sort of content with whoever you choose.

Your Profile

Your Profile page basically tells everyone about you and you can set varying levels of customisation to keep some parts private. Take caution here, because you can fill in all the fields and tell people more than you want them to know.

One place that things get fiddly is when you start adding people to Circles that you want to follow, like public figures, strangers, Mark Zuckerberg, etc. - they will then see what you have designated as available to Circles. To make things super simple, you can view your Profile as it will be viewed by another user so you can see exactly what such a person sees.

You can also link through to your Picasa account (more on which later) as well as your Twitter account, with both appearing on your Profile page to those people you allow to see it and with custom links, for example to your own website. Essentially you need to share enough information for people to find you, without leaving yourself open to chancers.

Your Profile contains information such as who you have in Circles (but not Circle names) and who has you in their Circles. This could be some measure of popularity, or rather public profile, with Mark Zuckerberg finding himself in 35,000 Circles at the time of writing.

Stream

Stream is the content. If you follow people, Stream is where their content appears, as long as they are sharing it with you. It is where your content appears to them, if you are in one of their Circles. It is effectively like your Facebook News Feed, although the Stream is live, so it will update before your eyes without you having to refresh the page.

You can change the content you view in Stream on the left-hand side and navigation here is by Circles, so you can easily cut out the noise and switch from Friends to Family, or to a wider Circle, perhaps Celebrities or Tech Bloggers.

There is also an additional option to view, and that’s called Sparks. Sparks is essentially curated content, which appears to be the result of a loose search. It means you can create a custom feed of stories, so if you have an unhealthy interest in Imogen Thomas, you can add her in Sparks to get news on her, or you can add a brand, website or whatever else.

The results from Sparks aren’t mind-blowing, adding “Curry” resulted in very little about food, and more about people called Curry, we we’re yet to see what Sparks really has to offer. At present it doesn’t look like a hugely powerful tool for finding or tailoring content precisely, but if you hit the right original search term, the results are definitely better. At present there is no way to add things like RSS feeds to your Stream, be we can see this being an option in the future, incorporating Google Reader.

Incoming forms part of your Stream. Incoming is interesting because it’s the content shared by those who have added you to Circles, but you haven’t added. We can imagine that popular people will find Incoming overbearing, flooded with content, but it does give you somewhere else to go to find more to explore. Finally you can view your Notifications in the Stream, a more detailed view than from the top of the page.

Sharing

Of course, the Stream is also the place that you create your own content to share. The box at the top is, again, reminiscent of Facebook, where you can add text, photos, videos, links and your location. You can add location to any post in addition to whatever else you are showing off.

Like Facebook, any URL you enter will run off and collect a thumbnail and preview text. You don’t have to use the shortcut icons, you can drag content into the box from your desktop and it will upload as necessary. The clever thing about the photo and video options is how well it gels with the auto uploading from the Google+ Android app, presenting recent uploads for you to pick from: it’s a seamless experience which is exactly what it needs to be.

You then get to designate who you are sharing with - Public at the top level, then down to Circles, or individuals. You just start typing names and suggestions appear. There is the potential to share things with complete strangers, so take some care - just typing a name might not return the person you are expecting. It does at least mean you can share with individuals really easily, without diving into private messaging or direct messaging as you would on Facebook or Twitter.

You can also tag people, which effectively shares the post with them. It’s easily done, just like Twitter, by sticking @ or + in front of their name. Either way you are offered suggestions, but in some cases we found we would then get a neat tag, in others we’d get a dirty email address, which looks like a bug.

People can comment on the things you share, you can comment and you can “reshare” things. When it comes to sharing, if someone has publically shared the original item, you can then publically share it again. If they put it out as a Limited post, then you can only send it out to your Circles.

You’ll also get a warning if you go to share something that’s previously been shared to Limited people to take a little care. Still, there is the potential here for someone to share something sensitive to select people, only for the next person to share it again with a wider Circle. There is an option to “disable reshare”, along with “disable comments”, if you feel that’s necessary.

You can also delete and edit content, with deleted content vanishing from other user’s Streams in real time. You can get a link to Public posts, you can report abuse as well as mute and block people, so there is a fair degree of control.

Of course, you can also +1 things. +1 is basically the same as the Facebook Like, recorded on the original item and then collated in an individual’s profile, so you can, in some cases, view a person and see what they’ve +1’d from around the web. In the context of Google+, the introduction of +1 recently now makes much more sense.

Hangout, Huddle and Chat

Sitting innocuously in the left-hand column is Chat. This isn’t something new to Googlers as it also sits in Gmail and is the familiar Google Talk. Google Talk sits behind a couple of features of Google+, the first is Chat, which is what we’ve seen before, but Hangout wants to be something different.

“Start a hangout” the button proclaims and makes use of Google Talk’s video feature. The idea is that you can start a hangout and people can then come and join you in your online world. It’s a form of group video chat, with options to watch YouTube or chat (IM) at the same time. IM might be your preference, because when watching a video your mic will be muted and you'll have to push the button to talk, which is a little clunky.

Where this is slightly different from something like Skype is you don’t ring a person, you just start your hangout and people can come to you. Proclaiming it to one of your Circles is sort of like an open invite.

Being able to video talk with a group of people through Google+ does have its place, but at the moment it doesn’t feel quite finished. The video quality isn’t on a par with what we’ve come to expect from Skype and the audio isn’t up to much either.

Huddle is a group chat equivalent on your mobile phone, meaning you can fire up a conversation with a number if different people on the go if you are using the Google+ app. However, at present this is limited to mobile users, so there is no connection between Huddle and Hangout. For more on the mobile app, you can find all the details in our App of the Day on Google+ for Android.

Photos and video

No social network is complete without photos and, in reality, photos might be one of the key battlegrounds for Google+. We’ve already mentioned that you can share them and we’ve already seen how they can be automatically uploaded from your phone using the Android app.

Picasa sits behind the photo service offered by Google+. When you add a photo to Google+ it will appear in your Picasa account, whether you currently use Picasa or not. Equally, you’ll find that your existing Picasa albums appear on your photo page under “Your albums”.

If nothing else, it’s a kickstart for photos, meaning you’re not having to settle down and add lots of photos if you already have them in Picasa. Taking things further, Picasa has it’s own range of services, such as a desktop client, which will make it really easy to get your photos to your new social network and probably faster in the uploading process than with Facebook.

Your photos get the same privacy levels as they always have on Picasa, so Google+ “friends” can’t see your albums by default unless you’re sharing with all. Equally, the automatically uploaded photos are private until you opt to share them, so you won’t get any embarrassing accidents.

Photos from others can be viewed under photos, or just through the Stream, and heading into a user’s Profile, you’ll find photos and videos get their own tab so you can easily browse what they have to share. You can tag photos and view them on a dark background along with comments and everything looks really neat.

Within your own Photos section you’ll find photos broken down into categories: Photos from your circles; Photos from your phone; Photos of you; Your albums. We’ve spent most of the time heading into Photos from your phone and we suspect this will be a hugely popular service, especially as you can collect and share video content here too.

Settings, Notifications

Settings for Google+ roll into your existing Google settings, so you’ll find G+ alongside the likes of privacy and other Google settings. Here you’ll also find the option to get out of the “social features” as well as delete your Google account, so be careful where you click.

You'll notice the data liberation option above. This will allow you to draw out various different types of content, so you can download your images, for example. It's cleaner than extracting yourself from Facebook, which bundles everything into one huge ZIP file, and means that you can easily retrieve your content.

Notifications have been prolific in the opening week of Google+. As people join and Circles are formed, everyone is being told. Initially Google+ will alert you through the browser, as mentioned, as well as by email. If you have the Android app you’ll be told there too.

It’s nice to know what’s going on, but a little overbearing: you’ll find Notification settings in the menus to select what you want to know about, along with photo controls, such as whether tagging (ID) and geotagging is allowed.

The notifications you get through the top bar (mentioned at the beginning of this piece) are quite flexible, meaning you can respond without having to return to Google+ properly, which is really handy.

Drawing it all together

To think of Google+ as something “new” would be wrong. It isn’t really new in concept or in application and there is little here that you can’t already do on existing services. Circles addresses a common complaint about existing social networks, making it easy to share things in different ways very easily.

However, Google is leveraging a number of their existing services - Android, Picasa, Google Talk specifically - as well as the wealth of information already available from your Google account. Already suggestions are appearing that these individual products, like Picasa, might be rebranded to give a more unified result. For some the sheer convenience of having everything under one roof may well be the deciding factor, especially as integration grows.

In that sense, Google+ may well become the Google and Android user's social network of choice and there are a lot of Google users out there. Intrigue will surely be a part of the appeal, but for those sitting outside of the Google system that draw might not be so strong.

Will people actively leave other services to be a part of Google+? Perhaps not. If you already have yourself set-up and running on Facebook and you’re happy with it then why leave? We can't see ourselves abandoning the good ship Facebook having invested time and effort in it and besides, we have friends on Facebook, and what if they don't want to leave?

There is a feeling of inevitability about Google+, the integration of existing services means we find ourselves returning to have a look on a regular basis and this will probably be a key factor. We've also only been looking at the beta and there have been changes during the last week, so we're sure there will be more interesting developments in the future.

As always, we will keep you posted.



>