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How Google+ Adds to Your Online Experience

Chart by Leon Haland

Chart by Leon Haland

After launching Wave and Buzz to poor reviews and little pick-up in user base, Google had a low bar to clear with Google+. Now that Google+ has acquired 10 million users in 16 days and is receiving accolades for user interface as well as high responsiveness from the Google+ engineering team on the platform itself, the social media community is asking itself “what does the future hold for Google+?” Moreover, as social network users, we each need to ask ourselves on what platforms we’ll share our information and content – and with whom.

If you are looking for a comprehensive overview of all aspects of Google+, I encourage you to check out the complete guide to the platform compiled by Ben Parr at Mashable. In this post, I’ll give you the very brief overview of key elements of Google+ and how you can get the most out of using them.

Stream

What is it: the newsfeed for Google+. Stories from people you’re following appear here with filters for your circles on the left hand side.

How it’s different: instead of “liking,” you can +1 content. Content gets pushed to the top of a Stream based on how recent the comments are – not the post itself.

Using it: because content with more engagement stays at the top, you may find yourself jumping back into active conversations rather than letting them slip by, the way you might on Twitter or Facebook when the immediate moment has passed. Once Google+ is out of the test phase for brands, this sort of promotion for more active posts may help to encourage more active conversations with brands – especially global brands where a “hot” post shared mid-day in the U.S. may have fallen off the feed before anyone in Asia wakes up. In addition, because of Circles (next section), content is better targeted so people sharing information publically are encouraging engagement by, theoretically, only sharing information with the Circles they’d want to respond. The Stream creates a space for this dialogue but threads it and allows for responses and interaction in ways that Twitter can’t.

How it could be better: Google lets you mute posts you’re not interested in hearing about anymore but I’d like to customize the Stream better. I can do that through the filters on the left, but can’t set a default view yet.

Circles

What they are: the method of organization for your connections on Google+. Anyone you follow must be put in a Circle – a group that you can target for posts and sharing. You can build your own or use Google recommended Circles, and moving contacts to and from the circles is simple, intuitive, and beautiful from a UX standpoint.

How it’s different: you’ll use them… and you’ll like them.

Using them: if you have a lot of personal and professional life cross-over, Circles will really help you target your content more appropriately. Being able to custom post to much smaller groups that I’ve created also cuts down on email; I’m trying to switch my family over to using Google+ instead of emails since we share so many photos of babies and links to articles. In fact, my best testimonial for the ease of Google+ Circles set up is that I got my mother on Google+, setting up a Circle for our family, watching a video, and posting a sarcastic comment to my post criticizing her in under 8 minutes. The benefit of getting my family into a Circle on Google+ for me is simple: posting links and uploading pictures within Google+ keeps the comments and jokes there and out of my inbox. Circles also make engagement more personal; knowing I’m only sharing and discussing with a group I selected makes me more willing to participate. Read more about Google’s Circle thinking in this Bloomberg piece.

How they could be better: I’m not sure Google can improve on Circles that much, but like many things in life, with Circles, you get back what you put in. If you really take the time to set them up thoughtfully, you’ll reap the rewards.

Sparks

What they are: feeds with recommended recent content about any topic. Want to follow what’s going on in movies, fashion, or sailboat racing? There’s a Spark for that. While you can create a Spark on any topic you want, some randomly selected topics appear to have more tailored/curated content than others. It’s a great way to discover new content on an interesting topic without knowing who to follow. Google’s precise algorithm for determining what appears in Sparks is under wraps at the moment and I would imagine that this section will get more robust and defined as more people use it and populate it.

How they’re different: at the moment, they appear to be a more refined Google alert feed or Google news feed around the search term, but without knowing Google’s criteria for Spark content, it’s tough to pinpoint precisely how they’re different.

Using them: a Spark on any topic lets you follow new news and content about it so whether you want to follow a hobby, a sport, a person, or a brand, Sparks let you do that. Right now, however, content that’s not recommended by Google is a bit all over the map and may not get you the quality of sources that you’re looking for. This is an area where brands and experts could really play a big role in the future. Getting your content pulled into the right Spark could ensure it gets seen by the most interested and relevant audience on a platform that encourages more engagement and sharing.

How they could be better: I see a ton of potential in Sparks, but with several updates. Google, I hope you’re listening, because here’s what we need:

  1. Integrate Google Reader. I already know what feeds I like, I already have them sorted, and they’re living in another product of yours. I sadly majored in Art History and not Computer Science, so I can’t tell you how to fix this, but I’m sure it’s possible.
  2. Make it easier to filter – especially by region. I am an obsessive TV watcher and love reading about the industry and programming, but I don’t care about blog posts on Australian or Indian television shows I cannot watch.
  3. Integrate Twitter feeds. I’ve discovered some of my best content on Twitter and have to believe there’s a natural way to bring Twitter into this.

Hangouts

What they are: Hangouts are group video chats that also allow space for text-based chat and YouTube video viewing.

How they’re different: I honestly hadn’t given that much thought to how video chat could be optimized, but it’s clear from Google’s approach to Hangouts that they have. The feature is the best video chat interface I’ve ever seen and includes fantastic touches like making whoever is speaking into the microphone at that moment the largest video box and muting you while others are watching a YouTube video.

Using them: the opportunities with Hangouts are endless. We’ve already discussed switching to using Hangouts for long distance brainstorms internally and brands like Dell are discussing using the feature for customer service. Ford Motor Company, a client of ours and one of the companies using a test account within Google+, hosted a Hangout on Friday the 22nd and it ran simultaneously on livestream so that even though the Hangout was capped at 10 people, the rest of the community could watch and chat. Response to the Hangout on Google+ was positive with fans already asking if other members of the Ford team (designers, product team members, etc). Newt Gingrich has run a few hangouts and used them as an opportunity to meet supporters face-to-face online and have a real personal interaction with them. You can watch one of his Hangout sessions on YouTube. Scheduled or more formal Hangouts would be easy to schedule and promote, but it’s just as fun to use them informally to just “hang out.”

How they could be better: being able to host a hangout and actually control who gets the microphone/camera would be fantastic as would the ability to allow unlimited people to view a hangout even if not participating. As mentioned above, Livestream and YouTube are two ways to share a Hangout afterwards with an audience so the capability does exist now with a little extra effort.

So What’s Next?

Obviously the jury’s still out on where Google+ is headed, but I really like the way conversations are organized and, frankly, getting to start over when Facebook seems to be more strangers and spam than it used to be for me. Furthermore, unlike a social network starting from scratch, much of my life is already with Google: personal and professional email and calendars, RSS feeds, photos on Picasa, Google checkout, Googlegroups, and Gchat are all essential parts of my life. Google+ feels like I’m just adding onto an already rich Google experience… which is why Google named the platform “plus” in the first place.

What are your thoughts on Google+ so far for you and for brands? Let me know below – or on Google+.