Google+ is Worth Exploring

by PocketGoddess on June 30, 2011

I just started using Google+ last night, and though I’m still exploring the service I already like it very much. In a nutshell, the service has three parts:

  • Circles–customized groups for your friends, family, coworkers, and other categories of people that you know
  • Hangouts–group video chat (if you’re using Google+ on a mobile device, this is just group chat, and is called Huddle)
  • Sparks–personalized feeds on the topics of interest to you

When you visit your stream, which is basically like your wall on Facebook, you’ll see a box at the top of the page that invites you to share what’s new, be that a brief note, a photo, a video, a link, or your location. Enter your information and tap share; you’ll then be prompted to choose the relevant circle or circles, or just make it public for everyone to see. Notifications regarding new comments on your posts or friends who have added you to their circles appear on the top right corner of the page, and also via email unless you’ve turned that option off on your settings page.

Some folks are already saying that Google+ will be the Facebook killer. I’m not ready to say that yet, but I can say that I’m already more comfortable with Google+ than I am with Facebook. I’ve never really liked the fact that there’s no distinction about what you share on Facebook–your family sees it, your friends see it, your coworkers, anyone you’ve friended, or just everybody on the web if you haven’t made your profile private.

With Google+, you choose the circles that you want to share each item with. That’s something that I really appreciate, because my online techie friends aren’t interested in what I did with my local friends last weekend, and work colleagues don’t need to know. Some of my hobbies are relevant to just about everyone I know, while others are much more specialized. That’s why I have multiple Twitter accounts, for example, since I run both a mobile tech site and a makeup/beauty site. Now that I can choose which circles to share with, I don’t have as many problems deciding what to post, and where. In a way, it unifies my online activities while also providing some much needed separation.

Even better, people cannot see which circle they’re in, only that you’ve added them to one of your circles. Google+ has a few suggested circles to start, such as friends, family, and acquaintances. You can create your own, using everything from “weekend drinking buddies” to  “annoying coworkers” or “noxious in-laws” and folks won’t know how you’ve categorized them. I’ve seen that question asked twice so far by different people, so I thought it was important to point out. If you want to know more about the various privacy settings on Google+, you can read all about it here.

There are a few confusing/frustrating bits at first–you have to add everyone to your circles manually, and there’s no real integration with Google Contacts. I’ve already got all of my Google contacts categorized in almost exactly the same way that I want my circles to be set up, so why do I have to do it all over again? I also have to be careful about checking the “email to people not yet using Google+” box so that I don’t spam everyone I’ve added to my circles–though it is nice to have that option for more important posts.

One other important difference is that it may seem that posts in your stream aren’t in chronological order. They are, but with comments included–so when someone comments on one of your posts, it moves to the top. If you’re used to the way Facebook does things, that may drive you a little nuts, but I rather like it. Even if someone is late to the party, I’m still interested in what they have to say–and that way I’m sure to see it.

I’ve haven’t yet tried the Hangouts feature, but according to the short video Google posted about this feature it allows you to video chat with up to ten people at once from the circle you choose. You’re also given the opportunity to test your mic and check your appearance(!) before you actually join the chat, which is nice to know. Don’t want to scare anyone too much during a bad hair day. . . .

Sparks looks really interesting. It seems to work best with the pre-selected interests that are already available, such as gardening, cycling, fashion, recipes, and robotics. Choose one and you’ll see a list of articles, links, and blog posts, etc. that is basically a categorized RSS feed. When you see something interesting, you can share it with one of your circles with just a couple of clicks.

If you’re not interested in one of the highlighted interests, you can type something else into the search box. I tried that with a few of my interests but didn’t come up with anything too interesting–there was a lot of random stuff that either wasn’t relevant or was rather old. I’m not sure how the items were chosen, as they were actually worse than the regular Google search results I would have expected at the very least. I’m sure that this service will improve with time, but right now it’s not what really excites me about Google+.

I can’t wait to see what comes next for Google+. As polished as it is, there’s a lot of room for improvement and for new features to be added. I’m also curious how everything will stay in sync–will Google+ be strictly a standalone service, or will it somehow integrate with Twitter and/or (gasp!) Facebook? It’s difficult (or let’s face it, impossible) to get everyone to use just one service.

The real question is whether Google+ will gain enough traction to be a true Facebook alternative, or whether it will be just another service to try and keep updated. Lots of my contacts are already using the service, since many of them are techie types who run web sites and uses Google’s various services and products quite heavily, so they got early invites. Some of my friends want to use it but can’t get in yet, while others are unlikely to ever jump on the Google bandwagon. Only time will tell whether Google+ will be a real contender in the social networking arena or just another has-been. I hope it catches on.

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