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Summary:

Last week, Google rolled out a largely well-received beta of its new social networking platform, Google+. Having played with Google+ over the last few days, I think that it may find a home in a perhaps unexpected market: the workplace.

Screen shot 2011-07-04 at 18.37.53

Last week, Google rolled out a beta of its highly-anticipated new social networking platform, Google+. Reaction to the launch so far has been mainly positive, with praise for the app’s design and features. But having played with Google+ over the last few days, I think that it may find a home in a somewhat unexpected market: the workplace.

While Facebook and Twitter have been massively successful in the consumer space, they’re not really suited for use in the workplace, as they make it difficult to keep personal and work-related information separate, and few companies would be happy about the possibility of potentially confidential information being broadcast to the world. Google, however, has produced an app that’s much more suited for use in the workplace by building Google+ around its Circles feature, which enables users to limit the sharing of information to specific groups of people, and by incorporating some very useful built-in collaboration features.

Circles, effortless contact management

Google+ is a lot like Facebook, offering users the ability to connect to other users, post status updates, share links and photos, and so on. But where it differs from apps like Facebook is its use of Circles, which allows users to define groups of contacts and then only share specific updates and other information with that group. Circles are effectively easy-to-understand privacy controls. They can be set up via an intuitive drag-and-drop interface, and there doesn’t appear to be any limitations on the number of them you can define.

You could, for instance, have a Circle for all of your work colleagues, a Circle for your team and then also create ad hoc Circles for project teams as required. This ability to easily control who you share specific pieces of information with is powerful, and very useful in the workplace: you may only want to send an update regarding the status or a project to only those colleagues working on that project, for example.

Facebook has tried to give users a similar degree of control over contact management with its Lists feature, but it’s clunky and nowhere near as well-implemented or as central to the experience as Circles is; while Google + is effectively  built on top of Circles, Facebook’s Lists feature feels like an afterthought.

As Google+ is a general-purpose social networking tool, a user can connect with any other Google+ user. This means that, unlike with many of the private enterprise social networking apps like Yammer, Jive, tibbr, Socialtext and Salesforce Chatter, people can use the app to easily communicate and collaborate with people outside of their organization — contractors or clients, for example.

Hangouts, Google+’s killer app for remote teams

Hangouts is Google+’s built-in multi-user video chat tool. It allows users to chat with up to ten people simultaneously and it’s really well implemented. Unlike other video chat apps, where you generally have to ping the other people you want to chat with on IM or email, get them to open their video chat client and then connect with them, Hangouts enables you to “hang out” in a video chat room, advertising your availability to chat to your contacts. If no-one else is around, you can leave it running in the background.

It’s all browser-based, so the user doesn’t have to fire up another app, and allows for much more spontaneous and effortless collaboration than other video chat app I’ve tried. I think it could potentially come close to replicating an “in office” experience for remote teams, allowing for the virtual equivalent of wandering up to a colleague’s desk to discuss a problem, or the traditional “water cooler” social chat.

Hangouts has an intuitive interface: Whoever is currently talking is highlighted in the large central window, with everyone else displayed in  strip of smaller windows underneath. In my testing, it works really well, with little lag. There’s a built-in IM feature for sharing links and so on, and also a YouTube feature, which enables users to share the watching of YouTube videos (which is neat, but probably not all that useful in the workplace). As Om noted, Hangouts is group video chat done right. It’s much better than Skype’s somewhat clunky group video chat feature, it’s free, and as it’s standards-based, it could be integrated into other applications, too (if you’re curious, Janko has written an interesting overview of the standards-based tech used to build the service).

Hangouts isn’t Google+’s only collaboration tool. It also features a built-in group texting feature called Huddle (see Stacey’s review here), which is currently only available on Android handsets.

Keep your team up-to-date with Sparks

Another great feature that differentiates Google+ from Facebook is Sparks. It lets users define an interest (robotics, for example), and then trawls the web looking for articles related to that interest, making it easy for users to find relevant articles to share. This could be useful in the workplace for research or keeping abreast of industry news, for example, helping users to stay up-to-date with topics of interest to them and their team, and then easily share and discuss any particularly interesting bits of information.

Why Google+ isn’t the perfect enterprise social-networking tool — yet

While Google + is well designed and has a lot of really great features, it’s not the perfect enterprise social networking tool just yet; it’s got a way to go before companies like Yammer and Salesforce should begin to really worry. Firstly, as Mathew noted, it needs users. Google+ is still in beta, but even after it launches to the general public, even if Google is massively successful in getting new users to sign up it will be a while before Google+ can get anywhere near rivaling Facebook’s numbers.

Secondly, Google+ isn’t yet set up to work with Google Apps accounts, which precludes a large number of potential enterprise users from using it with their main work email accounts. However, it’s probably safe to assume that Google+ will be made available to users of Google Apps soon — and the prospect of integrated social features in Google Apps powered by Google+ is a tantalizing one.

Finally, although Circles is an easy to use and intuitive way for users to determine who they share specific bits of share information with, it’s not perfect: there have already been reported privacy concerns with Google+ and Circles, with updates being forwarded on (or “reshared”) beyond the original Circle it was intended for. Google is being responsive to the concerns and is now addressing that particular issue, so hopefully any lingering privacy concerns will be ironed out before the product sees a more widespread release.

Of course, as Jess noted earlier today, the success of enterprise social networking tools depends on much more than just the technology itself. But Google’s latest foray into the social space is very well designed and offers a a great range of features. Assuming the company can tackle any privacy concerns that pop up and can persuade enough users to join the service and give it the initial traction it needs, Google+ could well become entrenched in the workplace.

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  1. Great post, Simon! I think there’s a lot of potential in Google Plus. However, for now it seems a little odd and unfinished, as you mentioned. I just wrote a small article about the five things a small business can use Google Plus for right now. Of course, this will change in time and the article is more of an exploratory view of the platform. I would like to know what you think of it. Thanks.

    5 Ways You Can Use Google Plus For Your Business Today
    http://dmarketingideas.com/post/7229971881/5-ways-use-google-plus-for-business

    1. Thanks Phil. I guess G+ is still a beta, so I’d expect to see more polish added over time. I still think it’s a pretty darn impressive product at beta launch (though after the failures of Buzz and Wave, it probably had to be)

  2. I’m a bit confused how Circles are much different from Facebook friends lists aside from the drag-and-drop interface and an additional click it takes on Facebook to share with a specific list.

    1. A major difference is the ability to start from scratch versus categorizing 500 existing friends in the same bucket. Another difference is the feature’s prominence in the UI. Circles is one of the 4 icons in the Google+ header. Lists is a small arrow next to the status input box on Facebook. Of course, TBD if it’s enough to draw critical mass away from (or in addition to) FB.

      1. I don’t get what you mean by “ability to start from scratch versus categorizing 500 existing friends.” Don’t you HAVE to start from scratch considering you start out with no friends just as you did on Facebook? I’ve been using Facebook friends lists/privacy for over a year now. It’s the same function and concept.. I still don’t see any major difference aside from the drag-and-drop. I think the difference here is Google marketed this feature more than Facebook did with lists.

    2. G+ is built around Circles — it’s difficult to use it without categorizing your friend list into different Circles. As you say, you can do the same thing in FB, but it doesn’t feel as central to the experience and many people don’t even know the feature exists.

    3. I think I know what you’re asking Fernando. To give an example, I’ve always been expecting that, with FB lists, when you choose privacy settings for a certain album, you would be able to restrict the album visibility to only certain lists in addition to certain networks, but you can’t, which you would think is a obvious feature to have, but probably wasn’t implemented because it would’ve required a lot of revamping of how the privacy settings work, which is what makes “Facebook’s Lists feature feel like an afterthought.” — plus it would be cool to be able to restrict certain aspects of your profile to certain lists.

      With Circles, it’s sounding like it will almost feel like smaller social networks within one big network because you’ll be able to completely limit all pieces of information (pics, status updates, etc) to self-defined groups of people because ” Google + is effectively built on top of Circles” and everything you can do on it will evolve off of that fact.

      I could be off, but that’s what I’m anticipating,

  3. Niall Harbison Monday, July 4, 2011

    I do tend to agree but it has a long way to go and annoying their paying apps customers at the start was not the best way to go! The only issue is that we use Yammer and I already worry about that getting hacked or internal stuff going public but with + it would be even easier to share with the wrong group of people

    1. Yes, that’s true. Yammer and the other enterprise social networks are more private. But, as I noted in my post, that means you can only use them for collaboration internally.

      1. Hi Simon,

        Actually, you can collaborate with external groups using Yammer and many companies are using this today as a key benefit. The Yammer Communities feature allows users to quickly and easily set up secure external groups and invite people outside the company. Here is a recent post that provides a summary: http://blog.yammer.com/blog/2011/06/communities-overview.html

  4. Great post Simon ! I was also interested in knowing if you have bandwidth implications for an enterprise for the “hangouts” application for it to be of practical use within an enterprise for the kind of use cases outlined by you (water cooler discussions!). The way I understand it, each user is streaming audio/video stream to a service somewhere in the Google cloud! Assuming each user stream takes about 512k in egress bandwidth from the enterprise, a enterprise with 10 or 20 users will amount to using 5-10M in egress bandwidth alone just for “hanging out” regardless of whether you have users joining your “hang out” !! Would be interested in your take on how much bandwidth the application takes.

    1. I haven’t looked into this yet, I’m afraid. it definitely would be interesting to measure the typical bandwidth requirements.

  5. Donna Svei aka AvidCareerist Monday, July 4, 2011

    Couldn’t agree more. Google+ is a productivity platform that encompasses social networking. It makes Facebook and LinkedIn legacy systems. More here: http://bit.ly/iQwB9d.

  6. awesome! Google going to “limit the sharing of information”

  7. iTechWhiz Technology Blog Monday, July 4, 2011

    Thanks mate, for this really useful sharing…If Google could somehow import users from facebook I would definitely +1

  8. Google + turns out to be an excellent source to interact, specially in a world where even your mom, your blog and your wife is on social networks. Google’s Circle feature allows you to share information with specific people and keep it private. Its something that Facebook does not offer and I feel that, Google has a better chance to become the ever powerful social network, if Facebook is not going to do something about its social networking system.

    1. If G+ does gain some traction, I think we’ll probably see Facebook revamping its Lists feature.

  9. I think it is the perfect new platform to re-launch Google Wave as a non-video alternative to Hangouts. Wave was way ahead of its time, and only failed because it didn’t integrate with other systems. It needed a launch platform, and I think this is it.

    If Google integrates Apps [starting with Gmail], Wave, and a good API for developers, then + will be much better than anything else around. Leave Facebook for the kids, and Myspace for the music world, and Google+ for everyone else.

    1. Interesting idea! Personally, I think Wave is pretty much dead to Google and I don’t think there’s any chance of it being reborn as-in. However, they wouldn’t preclude the company using some of the Wave tech within G+ for collaboration. That could actually be a very smart move especially when Google Apps is brought into the fold.

  10. Very informative! thanks for sharing lot about Google+

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