Google Learns to Facebook

August 16, 2011 by Christiane Stagge

We’ve put the new social network Google+ through its paces (screenshot: Mashable.com)

We’ve put the new social network Google+ through its paces (screenshot: Mashable.com)

It has the feel of an elite club: Any attempt to log in without an invitation from a current member proves futile. Since it went online on June 28, 2011, demand for access to Google+ has been feverish, with the social network having already welcomed some 20 million users into the fold. While this number does pale in comparison to Facebook’s 750 million members, the rapid growth of Google+ and the exclusive features it offers suggest it will soon present a strong challenge to the leading social network, as well as to Twitter and other online media.

Following the foundering of both Orkut and Google Wave, the search giant’s latest endeavor is still in beta; some of its features are not yet fully functional. Google has thus limited membership to avoid overtaxing its test environment. After witnessing a spike in registrations in a very short period of time, the company began compiling a waiting list for those interested in creating an account. As mentioned, those looking for immediate access will need an invitation from a registered user.

In this article, you’ll find more on the following topics:

  • Circles, the Google+ method of organizing friends
  • Hangouts: video telephony with YouTube integration
  • Google+ on your smartphone
  • Using add-ons to connect Google+ and Facebook
  • Google+ in the world of business
With Google+, you can arrange your friends in Circles (screenshot: Mashable.com)

With Google+, you can arrange your friends in Circles (screenshot: Mashable.com)

Going around in Circles

Even with a Google+ invitation, those who don’t use services such as Gmail, iGoogle, Picasa, or Google Docs will still need to create a basic Google account. After doing so, you’ll benefit from having your e-mail, documents, photos, and social networking all integrated into the same browser interface. All of your Gmail contacts will also be available in Google+, and you can import your Picasa photos for subsequent editing and sharing.

Just like Facebook, Google+ enables you to create your own profile, which is also where you can view your stream (read: news feed), photos, videos, and more.

Of particular importance, however, are your Circles. As in real life, you can arrange your contacts in different groups of your choosing, such as “Work,” “Schoolmates,” “Family,” or “Softball Club.” You can also assign the same person to multiple group, and you can rest assured, the user will receive no explicit notification of such activities.

Caution advised in protecting your data

When posting a message or uploading a photo, you first select the Circle in which you want it to appear.

In theory, Facebook also enables you to make your status updates visible only to certain groups of people, but many users have found the actual procedure too complicated and confusing. It’s also worth noting that Google+ advises you to consider exactly whom you are giving access to what content when making a post.

Right from the start, you may notice that Google+ seems cleaner and more clearly arranged than Facebook. Considering the fact that Google’s social network currently contains no advertising, this comes as little surprise. This could soon change, however, as Google is planning to allow corporate accounts in the future. Right now, registration is limited to individuals and requires prospective users’ real names. Any account created under a nickname will be blocked.

No Hangouts, but Huddles: Only the group chat function is available for smartphones (screenshot: Google)

No Hangouts, but Huddles: Only the group chat function is available for smartphones (screenshot: Google)

Hangouts: video telephony with YouTube integration

Along with its cleaner look, Google+ also offers more customization options than Facebook. Sparks, for example, enable you to subscribe to feeds on topics that interest you. Meanwhile, the “+1” button serves as a means of “liking” things as you would on Google’s more established competitor.

The Google+ Stream displays your own posts and those of your contacts. Unlike on Facebook, however, you have the option of editing your posts after the fact, as well as disabling comments and sharing.

Hangouts are one feature that puts Google+ ahead of every other social network. With this function, you can hold video conferences with up to 10 people and even watch YouTube videos together. Neither Skype nor Facebook can currently claim the same. After installing a free plugin, you can start a hangout and invite other users; it’s also possible to switch your webcam on or off and choose a set of speakers before the conference begins. No webcam at your disposal? No problem – you can still participate through a chat window.

Google+ keeps you up-to-date on where your contacts are and even sorts them by geographic proximity on your smartphone (screenshot: grasundsterne)

Google+ keeps you up-to-date on where your contacts are and even sorts them by geographic proximity on your smartphone (screenshot: grasundsterne)

Special features of the mobile Google+

The Google+ app, which has been available for Android smartphones more or less since the network’s launch, has now also been released for iPhone 3G and later. Those using an iPad, iPod Touch, or an original iPhone need not apply.

With the app, you can upload photos and follow your contacts’ status updates like on Facebook, but Google has also included a number of new functions for those on the go. Instead of a Hangout, for instance, you can start a huddle to chat with multiple friends, and the Nearby feature displays the posts of contacts in your Circles in order of their proximity to your current location.

Browser add-ons link Google+ and Facebook

While Facebook currently prohibits users from importing their contacts to Google+, the add-on Google+Facebook makes it possible to view at least your Facebook wall through your Google+ account. Upon installing it, you’ll see a Facebook icon appear in the main menu bar of Google+. Any posts you make on the corresponding page will also be published on your Facebook wall by means of the SocialAnywhere service. Rather than being exclusive to Google’s own browser, Chrome, Google+Facebook also works with Firefox and Internet Explorer.

Google Chrome is, however, the only browser that supports Extended Share for Google+, Beauty G+, and Google+ Hangout Check. Extended Share for Google+ propagates your posts to Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and Beauty G+ gives you the chance to customize the layout of your profile page. With Google+ Hangout Check, you’ll never miss another virtual rendezvous; the extension provides an overview of ongoing and upcoming hangouts in your network.

Nice and clean: Google+ offers a more clearly arranged appearance (screenshot: grasundsterne)

Ship-shape: Google+ offers a more cleaned-up appearance (screenshot: grasundsterne)

Google+ in the world of business

Right now, Google+ requires users to register under their real names, but it’s only a matter of time until companies are allowed to create accounts. They would do well to seize the opportunity: The aforementioned “+1” button enables members to indicate what they like and what they don’t, and their interests and preferences are also evident based on their Sparks subscriptions. Google+ could thus become a key marketing channel for businesses. Based on users’ profile data, Google could presumably generate personalized advertising just like on Facebook. The company’s social network would then function as a kind of tailored search engine – one fueled not by algorithms, but by the user’s personal interests.

While most add-ons for Google+ are only available to those who use the aforementioned Google Chrome, Internet Explorer is the standard at many companies. It’s likely, however, that all of these functional enhancements will soon support other browsers.

The ability to conduct video conferences – and not only talk and chat, but watch YouTube videos together – with up to 10 people using the Hangouts function is what makes Google+ stand out at the moment. With it, it’s possible to hold meetings with colleagues in different countries without paying a cent for the service.

Michael Dell, a self-professed Google+ user, has mentioned how useful he believes the Hangouts feature could be in sales and customer support. The Dell corporation, meanwhile, is already known for its intensive activity in the realm of social media, having announced U.S.$6.5 million in Twitter revenue in 2008.

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