Google has made more missteps with social networking than perhaps any other company online. MySpace’s slow death marks the death of one product. In the same time frame, Google has bought out, launched, and killed or neglected a score of social products. Wikipedia lists nearly a dozen social networking related acquisitions, depending on which you count, and Google’s own Orkut, Buzz, and Wave have either withered on the vine or been outright killed.
With this many failures, you’d think Google would cede the social networking market to Facebook and Twitter. Not so. Google unveiled yesterday their latest network, Google+. For once, it looks like Google might have a winner on its hands, if it can convince us to share on yet another network. It’s stylish, and includes features that take it beyond both Facebook and Twitter. Let’s take a look at what Google+ promises, and see whether it’s even worth trying to join.
Google+ | Search + Social
Google+ is a broad new social networking strategy at Google, in an attempt to pull together all of our online social interactions into the world’s most popular search engine. It’s been carefully thought out and designed, with a team led by designer Andy Hertzfield, famous for having worked on the original Macintosh team. Oddly enough, Google+ is itself an odd name for Google, since it’s difficult to search for. Try entering it in various search fields; chances are, you’ll only end up find stuff about Google itself due to the way search strings are handled.
While there have been rumors for months about a new social network product from Google, there have been few mentions of it from Google itself. That all changed yesterday, when Google unveiled the broad strategy behind its new social network. They released a series of demo videos and tutorials that help you see why you’d want to use Google+ over Facebook, their largest online arch-rival. Despite all of the publicity drummed up about Google+, it’s still not ready for launch. Even still, it’s informative landing pages are designed with a touch rarely seen on Google sites, and are even fully internationalized already!
The most major part of Google+ is Circles, a new way to group your contacts into family, friends, coworkers, and any other group you want. Most social networks treat all of your friends the same, but if everyone you know doesn’t have the same interests, you might bore them to death with info about tech or your hobbies. Circles gives you mini social networks where you can share things that interest specific groups. You can even start a video chat with your group with Hangouts, or send messages to the whole group to plan parties, meetings, and more. This sounds great in theory, but it may turn out to be more trouble than it’s worth. After all, do you really want to update your status specific for a dozen different groups?
One interesting thing about Circles is how nicely the main UI has been designed. You can select contacts and drag them to the circle, instead of having to fiddle with menus as you would in Facebook. Best of all, your contacts will be grouped with a paperclip as you’re dragging them. It’s not enough to make you want to switch, but it does show how much focus Google has put on the interface.
Interesting, Google+ isn’t just about communicating with people. It’s also about helping you find stuff that interests you. You likely follow major brands and sites you love on Twitter or Facebook to keep up with them, so we’re already using social network to stay up to date with companies and more. Google+ tries to automate this process. Just enter a topic you’re interested in, and Sparks will discover articles, videos, and more about it so you can find them anytime. This way, if your friends aren’t interesting enough, the Google Bots can keep you interested in Google+.
To get a better look at what Google+ will have to offer, you can try out their Interactive Demo today, or signup to make sure you’ll get in as soon as it’s ready for the public. Or, take a peek at the intro video below. It’s a surprisingly emotional take on what Google+ can offer groups, and reminds you more of an Apple ad about the iPad than of a Google ad. Google’s trying to hit a level of style they rarely aim for, and it’s interesting to see the search giant in such a different light.
A New Way of Searching Today
Another interesting Google site that’s recently popped up is What Do You Like?. There, you can type in a topic you like in a Google-style search box … only this time, the search button has been replaced with a heart. Your search results will show results from all of Google’s properties about the topic you entered, including videos, Sketchups, debates, patents, and more.
It’s an interesting view on topics you care about, but the vast majority of topics won’t have results in all of the categories. What’s most interesting, though, is that this seems like it could be a test for Google+’s Sparks feature, which will let you keep up with topics you care about.
A New Coat of Paint, Too
Last Saturday, I had noticed that Google searches were showing a black top navigation bar, and mentioned it as a curious change on Twitter. Turns out, I wasn’t just seeing things. Along with Google’s new Google+ network, they’ve added some sweeping changes to the interface on several of their sites. The top navigation bar on all Google sites is now black, and the Google header is now a faint grey color with larger blue buttons. The left side navigation buttons are a more muted charcoal color as well.
Along with that, Google has quietly highlighted one of their newer search-orientated sites: A Google A Day. This site poses a whimsical question of the day for you to answer, making your daily searches a tad more educational. I’ve often found Bing’s picture of the day and its fact hover-spots to be a similarly simple way to discover new facts. Interestingly, A Google A Day sports a newer design style, but one filled with lighter colors instead of the the new Google.com’s black and grey scheme. It almost feels more Android-style, whereas the new Google.com almost has an Apple-esque design.
Yet another major Google site to receive a design change yesterday was Google Fonts. This popular service lets you use a wide variety of fonts in your own site’s design, giving you a nicer option than the default web-safe fonts like Arial and Georgia. The new refresh gives it a full new UI, added a number of new fonts, and improved loading times for fonts. All of these new developments point to a new focus on design at Google, and a step away from their plain robotic design they’ve used for the past decade.
A New Future For Google
Google’s struggled through the years to find their true identity. Not content to remain simply the world’s most popular search engine, they’ve expanded into a mind-numbing number of categories. Their products span the range from search to maps to 3D drawings to operating systems and browsers. Google+, along with the newly redesigned parts of their other services, point to a more consumer-friendly face at Google that focuses on making their services more appealing to people.
“We’re in this for the long run,” says Ben-Yair. “This isn’t like an experiment. We’re betting on this, so if obstacles arise, we’ll adapt.”
“I don’t really see what Google’s alternative is,” says Smarr. “People are going to be a fundamental layer of the internet. There’s no going back.”
Despite Google’s mammoth user-base, it’s still very uncertain whether their social networking efforts will ever take off. Facebook pratically defines the word “network effect”, and convincing people to switch would be a major feat. Most of us use Facebook because it’s the only network all of our family and friends use, and unless we can switch the whole way, we’re unlikely to ever put Google+ to use. You can’t blame Google for trying, though, and Google+ looks like it might have the best chance of taking off of any newer Google service. Like it or not, social networking is here to stay, and Google wants to make sure they’re a part of it.
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