The idea of Google releasing a social network to compete with Facebook has been floating around for a while, but they hit us by surprise with the soft launch of Google Plus. This was also used to facilitate a redesign of other Google products – namely Gmail, Google Search, and the service-wide top bar.
Let’s circle back around later
When first setting up your account, you’re encouraged to set up “circles”: groups of people that you can use to control who sees what. A really cool UI powers the dragging and dropping of people into different circles…it feels familiar, but I can’t quite place it. You can add people to your circles and they can add you to their circles, but the person on the receiving end can’t see which circle they’ve been added to. It took me a while to fully grasp the level of mutualism; in this sense, it’s a lot more like Twitter than Facebook. It’s not zero sum – adding someone to a circle doesn’t require them to do the same with you.
Once circles are set up, entering profile information is pretty straightforward. Integration with your existing Google Profile is nice, and from here on out it’s essentially what would be expected of a standard social network.
Similarity to Facebook
It’s tough to describe functionality without using the word “Facebook”. The core of the app, especially the news feed, is very reminiscent of Facebook, but there are a few differences. With Facebook, segmentation of your friends is a hard-to-find afterthought, but in Plus, it’s one of the first things you do. Collaborative video chats (“Hangouts”) are something that Zuckerberg has yet to fully implement, but that’ll be changing soon, likely as a response to Plus. The user interface, although a little cleaned up, mimics Facebook in many ways, from the layout of a sidebar on the left to the indented format of comments. It almost reminds me of the Microsoft Store to Apple Store comparison.
A lot of things are awesome
Based on search queries and the potential for data collection with +1′ing, Google can have a much better idea of who someone is than Facebook does, and it’d be really cool to see some integration of that into how you’re connected to people. The fact that the Google header follows you around in Gmail, search, maps, etc. is also helpful.
But why could this be better?
Google does have a few advantages in terms of a userbase and ties with existing products, and is definitely better positioned to have a social network. But the timing’s way off. They’re putting up a brand-new silo right next to Facebook, and I’m not sure the segmentation will be a good thing. Photos are especially an issue – the inconvenience could be huge to have some photos on Facebook, some photos on Flickr, and now some photos on Plus.
And although it’s a small problem that’ll likely be taken care of in the future, there’s a significant delay between when you get a notification in Plus and when the email is sent. Not a huge deal, but it does throw you off when getting an email that’s notifying you of something that happened a few hours ago.
The bottom line
It’s a cool webapp. But when it comes down to the sandpaper, they’re not solving a real problem or filling a real need – they’re just trying to keep up with everyone else.