My POV on Google+

This post is my formal POV on Google+.  I encourage feedback, suggestions and comments. This isn't meant to be all of the reasons you should actually like and use Google+ (that's coming soon), or tips / tricks. It's purely a run-down and analysis for agency purposes.

After months of speculation, Google finally unveiled its secret “social” weapon in the form of Google+, a full fledged, feature-rich social network. The reveal has been anxiously anticipated, mostly due to Google’s prior failures in the social space (e.g. Google Wave, Google Buzz and Google Hotpot) and Facebook’s fearsome globe-dominating success. In just a week of beta-testing it’s become clear not only that Google+ is a serious challenge to the current kings of social media, but also that consumers are starved for a real alternative to the current offerings. Experts have been lauding it, early users have been spending hours engaging and people who weren’t invited are clamoring to get in. What follows is an overview and early analysis of Google+’s most significant features & functionality:

Unique Features
Google+ was designed to answer specific concerns about existing social products, and also to break ground on new forms of interaction. Google has extracted the best of Twitter, Facebook and smaller successes like FriendFeed, but at the same time mixed in a healthy dose of innovation. While there are many significant features included in Google+, these four may be the most significant:
This is Google’s slick method of creating lists of people to follow and/or share with. Circles allow you to publish content to specific people, and filter your view of the social stream to reduce noise. Like with Twitter, following on Google+ is asynchronous; users can allow anyone to follow them without having to follow someone back or give up control of which content they share to whom. By taking this approach, Google is allowing granular control while also aggressively going after Twitter’s domain of public broadcast and celebrity voyeurism, rather than Facebook’s private relationships. Google+’s asynchronous follow, as well as lesser features like its Spark news integration, ensure that new users can enjoy Google+ and participate regardless of whether they have any friends in the service or plan on sharing any content of their own.
Almost everything in Google+ happens in real-time, giving users a continuous feeling of community activity. Replies on content appear immediately without screen refresh. When posts start to receive new comments they pop back to the top of the feed. Also, a persistent top-bar alert notification now sits above Gmail, Google Reader and Google Docs, immediately alerting Google users when someone interacts with their content or a discussion in which they’re involved in. These three features help produce unparalleled levels of engagement by repeatedly drawing users back into the network to participate in threads, rather than allowing content to disappear into the stream. The robust conversation being generated on posts is already leading several technology influencers to announce that they’re transitioning their blogs to a Google+ stream.

Hangouts is essentially a group video chat product that makes Skype look non-social by comparison. Hangouts can be opened to the public and support up to 10 people in a room at once. The screen dynamically focuses on whoever is speaking, and as soon as someone leaves a room a new person can join. In this way Hangouts becomes a killer group social feature and has a lot of potential to be utilized creatively. Also, by launching Hangouts days before Facebook announced a Skype partnership, Google made Facebook look outdated and unimaginative for the first time.

Right from the start Google is providing tools for any Google+ users to export all of their personal data. Though a minor functionality, this commitment to personal data ownership sets a stake in the ground for Google’s philosophy as it pertains to a critical aspect of social media as compared to competing social properties. Ideally, Takeout will pressure other social networks to match Google+’s offering by giving their users more control and ownership of their own information.
In contrast to all of Google+’s innovative features, something that’s missing may be its most significant asset of all as it builds its userbase: no syndication tools to and from other services. Whereas many people connect Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin together so one status message can be shared to all networks, Google+ is designed for everyone to only contribute fresh purposeful content to the community. While this might limit some people’s usage, it also ensures that people are not just seeing a duplicate experience to their Facebook or Twitter feed, and thus have more reason to stay and engage with everything that is shared. This is one feature of Google+ that very well may change soon when Google+ gets a public API, but for now it’s having a huge impact on how people use the service.

Even with its early success, Google+ has a major uphill battle. Facebook recently reached 750 million users and is the number one social platform in most countries world-wide. Twitter has slowly become a communication channel for the masses, playing important roles in national revolutions and government elections alike. Some people are skeptical the world needs another social network, especially considering that much of Facebook’s benefit derives from the network effect of everyone having joined it. However, there are many reasons why Google+’s success is incredibly important for both users and Google alike:
Though Facebook’s focus on real identities instead of anonymous handles changed the course of Internet history for the better, the way it’s handled identity rights has been questionable. Facebook is trying to aggregate as much user information as possible, but is shaky on what users can do with their data. As Facebook Connect becomes the log-in system for sites across the web, more personal information is consolidated under one roof. There needs to be another major competitor in the personal identity space, if only to keep Facebook honest and push them to think about users.
Prior to Facebook’s ascent, all search engines had access to the public data. Point of differentiation was left to quality of ranking algorithm and ease of use. Facebook’s exclusive deal with Bing for access to much of its data has set off a distressing trend of companies choosing which search engines will have access to their users public data. Now the best search engine might not have access to the most important data, and in the end only consumers lose out. Google+, and the corresponding ‘+1’ buttons, are Google’s chance to secure its own fate as social data and social content becomes more integral to search. But more importantly, Google+ could put pressure on the social players to make their data publicly indexable for the benefit of all.
While Google+ is a product on its own, it will also become a layer on-top of Google’s other offerings. This new social layer will help many of Google+’s legacy products, which have sometimes remained runner-ups despite competitive technology, achieve new standards of success. First up is Picasa, which now has powerful social sharing and people-tagging features that make Facebook’s inferior photo product so addictive to users. Picasa’s superior photo storage and organization will likely force Facebook to improve its own offering, and also could take market share from sites like Flickr. Google+ is likely to drive similar game-changing improvements in products like Google Places (it’s Yelp competitor) and more.
Though the first iteration of Google+ is only a consumer offering, it’s likely to create or impact many brand marketing opportunities. Right from the start, clever brands have launched personal profiles and started exploring Google+ with consumers through realtime feeds and Hangout conversations. However, Google is actively deleting personal profiles created by brands, and promises significant business-centric offerings soon.

Google is expected to provide businesses unique profiles that links to other Google business offerings, including robust analytics and advertising opportunities. Limited testing of these offerings will be opened to a few select partners, including MTV and Ford. If early Google+ consumer usage is a sign, brands will need to think hard about how they provide a unique experience in Google+ that will be more conversational and community focused than any other social network before it. Google+’s newsfeed and group video chat capabilities are intentionally optimized for engagement more-so than syndication, and lack of integration with Twitter and Facebook status helps reinforce that brands will want to create original content, rather than just replicate their other hubs.

In addition to presence within Google+, the Google+ social data is likely to improve targeting options for Google’s other ad products, such as Adwords or display media. Google will soon have more information about their users, more registered profiles and more social data to enhance behavior and contextual targeting. It will also give advertisers more opportunities to connect with brands through advertising and content across multiple platforms.

While there’s a lot to be excited about with Google+, it’s important to remember the beta has only been open a few weeks. As more people are let into the service, and as Google makes optimizations and additions to the network, all of this is likely to change. However, Google+ is already proving to be a significant new offering for Google as well as social media users, consumers and brands alike. Whether or not it dethrones the current kings of social, it will absolutely improve many of Google’s products and force competitors like Facebook and Twitter to innovate quickly to bring more value to the consumer. Google+ is ultimately a major win for users of all services, and reminds us that social media as a whole is still in its infantcy. It will be very important for businesses to pay attention to and explore in the coming months.