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Summary:

Google’s new social network offers a nice collection of features and a great design, but none of these things is enough to create a social network that people want to keep using — that requires a critical mass of users, and Facebook is leading that particular race.

Google plus screenshot

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few days, you know that Google on Tuesday rolled out its biggest effort yet to crack the social-networking market. Google+ is an ambitious collection of social features and tools, all bundled into something the company is taking great care not to describe as a Facebook competitor. Whether Google wants to admit it or not, however, that’s exactly what Google+ is — and the biggest hurdle for the web giant is that a collection of cool features doesn’t make a network. People do.

In a nutshell, Google+ (which the company says is just the beginning of a gradual rollout of other related social elements across the network) is focused around the “stream,” which is a very Facebook-like collection of posts, comments, photos and other content from your social “circles,” as Google calls them. There’s also a separate news-based stream called Sparks, and a video-chat feature called Hangout (which Om says should have Skype worried more than Facebook), but the circles and your interaction with them is the core of the experience.

The silo problem

As Marco Arment of Instapaper notes in a blog post, this is where the big problem (or challenge) lies for Google: At the moment, the only people in its social network are those who already use a lot of Google services, and only those with a Google profile can really participate fully. As far as I can tell, there’s no easy way to pull contacts in from Twitter, and there certainly isn’t any easy way to connect to Facebook — which isn’t surprising given the history between Google and the Zuckerberg empire. As a result, your Google+ life feels a little like you’re living in a silo.

This is a point I tried to make in a previous post about Google and its social efforts: If you can’t extend your online activity to a broad selection of your actual social graph, it won’t be useful enough to keep you coming back and will ultimately fail (FriendFeed, a service I liked very much, was heading down this road until it was bought by Facebook).

If you’re a social network, you live or die based on the network effects you either create or take advantage of. It’s nice to have cool features, but features — broadly speaking — aren’t what make people keep using a social service (yes, we’re looking at you, Ping). To use a retail analogy, features and user interface can get people in the front door, but they can’t turn them into die-hard customers. What really makes them keep coming back are the people they can connect with, share with, comment to, and otherwise interact with.

Good design is nice, but not enough

That’s not to say Google+ isn’t good-looking, because it is. In fact, the user interface is extremely well done, as others have noted, and is substantially better than many other Google services, which usually go for what could charitably be called the “utilitarian” look. For Google+, the company apparently turned to former Apple designer Andy Herzfeld, and it shows. But the truth is most people don’t give a damn about good design, or at least not enough to choose a specific network based on looks (although Myspace  is arguably an example of how bad design can drive users away).

Google+ also does a lot of things right when it comes to the structure of the network. One of those is the whole idea of “circles,” or specific groups that you can add people too (the defaults are Family, Friends, Acquaintances, and Following but you can also add your own). If there’s a killer feature in Google+, it’s probably this: the idea that users don’t want to necessarily share everything with all the people in their network, but want to share specific things with certain groups. Facebook has lists, but they are cumbersome to set up and use, while Google makes creating “circles” incredibly easy.

Circles are great, but who’s in them?

Ironically, this idea of having different groups in which users can share different content originally came from Paul Adams, a former Google designer who published a highly regarded Slideshare presentation about the concept last year, describing it as the missing element of most social networks (i.e., Facebook). It’s ironic because Adams is now working at Facebook (he said in comment on Twitter that seeing Google+ being used in public was “like bumping into an ex-girlfriend”).

Unfortunately for Google, adding people to circles is still kind of kludgy, because if they don’t already have a profile on Google then you can only add them as an email contact, which hardly seems that appealing. Google may have millions of users, but that doesn’t help if I don’t know that many of them — I checked when I got Google+ and I only know a handful of friends who have a profile.

The bottom line is that Facebook has the one killer feature of a social network: namely, almost all of my friends and family are using it. That’s a mountain for Google to climb, and it could mean that Google+ becomes like a grown-up version of FriendFeed: a niche network for techie types. Of course, Myspace — which used to be the world’s leading social network with a value of $580 million and was just sold for $35 million — is a great example of how even network effects can turn against you if your business model is flawed. So even Facebook probably shouldn’t get too complacent.

XKCD cartoon used by permission

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  1. Not sure why google is not trying the parasitic approach through it’s own YouTube network, and spreading into Twitter and FaceBook. The biggest problem I hear from Facebook users is it’s poor content management/organization sharing sphere.

  2. >Paul Adams, a former Google designer who published a highly regarded Slideshare presentation about the concept last year, describing it as the missing element of most social networks (i.e., Facebook).

    Finally a post that mentions this i.e. it’s a terrific preso and Paul Adams is spot on!

    I’ve had a Google profile for quite sometime but use LinkedIn because it’s widely adopted but will probably shift to Google+ ( once I get an invite and it becomes more widely adopted )

  3. disagree..
    The features are what makes you come back to the site. If people starts using it for the cool features it has, their social circle will grow eventually. This is not something that will happen overnight.
    Same thing happened with Orkut in India. Almost everyone used Orkut in India. But because facebook had more features and a new approach to social networking, people started migrating and over a period of 3-4 years almost every Orkut user had a facebook account.

  4. Wish I could +1 this post.

    1. Thanks, Melvin — we’re working on that :-)

      1. Also you need to get your Android app soon – overdue by many quarters!

  5. Lucian Armasu Wednesday, June 29, 2011

    I’ve joined several social networks in the past. At the end of the day you stick with the one you like most. Sure, not having all your friends there is an issue, but it’s not as big as people think. If you REALLY like the service, you’ll tell everyone about it and get as many friends on it as soon as possible, by FORCE if necessary (kidding, sort of). That’s how early adopters think and that’s what they do. It’s how all fun services that have a very loyal following start.

    You’ve probably heard of the “crossing the chasm” issue in technology from early adopters to mainstream. But I just don’t really see it here, because the product actually looks easier to use and more fun than Facebook, and perhaps the smart thing about it is that it even looks familiar, which is good for mainstream people.

    If Google+ can have a very loyal reasonable amount of users in its early stages, and I believe it will, I don’t think jumping into mainstream after that will be too much of a hurdle. Many services have taken off like that, including Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare. It may turn out Google+ is not even playing the exact same game as Facebook, and it could actually be disruptive to Facebook, and we know that disruptive innovations don’t have much of a problem replacing “incumbents”. And in a way it’s not because of the Circles strategy which is built-in from the start.

    Sure, Facebook may try yet again to patch up their “share to everyone” system after they failed with Lists (and Groups?) but it will probably be no different than Symbian trying to become a touch-based OS. It ends up looking tacked on, and too little too late.

    Circles could be a game-changer, because basically it’s a redesign and rethinking of how a social network should work. And it’s not just that, but actually NOT having a circles like feature from the beginning, is a major design flaw of all previous networks, because they’ve all eventually suffered from the same issue, and ended up with people getting “irrelevant friends” and in the end making the social network itself irrelevant to the users, because of the much diluted relationships within that social network.

    If circles turns up to be something we didn’t know we want, but now that we have it we can’t live without it, then Google+ will be a game-changer, and could easily get all the bored/annoyed early adopter types from Facebook, and later, through them, the mainstream.

    1. A very good comment, and I agree with your point about our being able to adopt new social networks more easily than many assume.

      Circles looks like the kind of feature I would want in a social network. Others have mentioned the mental effort, or anxiety, that Circles introduce (thinking about who can see what in my circles, or in overlapping circles started by me and my friends), and I wonder how much this overhead will affect how circles are valued.

      Matthew’s point about reliance on Google account-holders seems possibly relevant, though I know of few people without a Google account (Android sales alone should be a big factor here), and just about nobody unwilling to take 3 min to sign up for one. But it’s still worth a chuckle to think of starting a social network without giving users the ability to invite others.

  6. An invite-only beta is probably not a great way to build a large user base either.

    1. An invitation only beta? It worked for gmail.

      Having said that, until we see a broader userbase we won’t know how well those cool features work.

  7. 2 more BIG Problems that need to be addressed ASAP.

    #1 Solution for people like me who have multiple Google accounts and would like to combine a couple of them into one Google+ Account.

    #2 People who are already paying Google for some of their service can NOT use Google+

  8. best UGC ad for G+ yet?

    not often Google and Fun appear synonymous?

  9. Debbie Degabrielle Thursday, June 30, 2011

    It is unlikely that Google+ will detract from Facebook, but it seems that this time around, Google may have found their golden ticket into the social space. Google has been missing out on the loads of data that has arisen in the era of social media. Meanwhile, brands and agencies are reaping the benefits of tools that allow them to capture and analyze the social conversations and in turn, make better business decisions. If Google can succeed this time around, the data the company will have and be able to slice and dice will allow much better targeting for advertisers and brands and tie into search.

  10. Yep, you nailed it. This is what we’ve been talking about for months, but success today is all about easy and sensible user transition.

    Continue to blend (and eventually supplant) Contacts, Talk, Buzz, Picasa, etc. into the fold of Google+ and deeply integrate it with Gmail, Reader, Calendar, etc., thereby making it (critically) both an easy and natural transition for end-users. That and leverage existing footholds with Academic institutions to hook students in.

    Now if Google would just throw me an invite, so I could dig in and give feedback…

  11. I completely disagree with this. Facebook started out with no base and built it up, same with twitter. If anything, google has the advantage over where Facebook and twitter were when they first started up. We can’t expect Google+ to have the same clout as FB or Twitter do right now.

    Social networks take time to build, and Google has the advantage because of the amount of subscribers they have access to through their email service. Did either of FB or twitter have close to the same amount of people subscribing to their beta test? nope!

  12. I think the key here, as far as getting people to use it, is Mobile. In the developing countries like mine, most people would access the internet through their phones (most people don’t own computers). If Google+ has the ability for users to easily create their accounts/profiles from their phones, i believe it won’t take very long before they get critical mass user count.

  13. “Unfortunately for Google, adding people to circles is still kind of kludgy, because if they don’t already have a profile on Google then you can only add them as an email contact, which hardly seems that appealing.”

    I disagree. In fact, I would argue that this could potentially be the second killer app for Google+. That is to say, Google+ users can share with non-Google+ users — yes, it leverages email, but this allows non-users to still get updates via email, and attracts them to sign-up. This is actually pretty genius.

    Because of Circles, Google+ is more about “friend/contact management” and “sharing” as opposed to broadcasting to everyone you know.

  14. I got an invite, I cant log in? This is crazy, google aught to be letting more people take it for a spin, by time-share if necessary.

    Also what are the development APIs and tools for this new toy? No word yet on how we make this do fancy tricks with our own code….slack!

  15. +1 this, I totally agree with your point of view. Google+ seems to be very good. I joined and love the Circle + Hangout features.

  16. Danielle Catherine Sanda Wednesday, September 21, 2011

    So if I add all my facebook friends as contacts but they don’t have Google+, what happens when I post something to their circle?

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