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Socially Awkward Google Tries Biggest Facebook Challenge Yet With Google+

Google (NSDQ: GOOG) has launched yet another project geared at making its search engine a more social beast. The awkwardly titled Google+ went live as an invitation-only “field test” Tuesday with the goal of allowing users to share information within self-determined groups of connections called “circles,” and is aimed squarely at Facebook, its largest rival.

Information is trickling out about Google+, which was demonstrated to a group of select media outlets ahead of a launch this morning. A black navigation bar is being added to the top of for participating users, with a “+” sign next to one’s name on the left-hand side. Clicking on that link will bring up a new social-networking service that is based off of Google Contacts or contacts imported into the service.

Users can set up mutually exclusive “circles” of friends geared around interests like sports or politics, and share information with those groups. They can use a group chat feature and also search for information to link to their Google+ profiles.

Here’s a video that explains the general concept in more detail, complete with Google’s trademark heart-warming instrumental soundtrack and seemingly real people.

A look at the key features of Google+:

Circles: This seems a clear poke at Facebook’s groups and lists features, which are not the easiest thing in the world to use. Google has offered a way to let Google+ users create groups of friends, colleagues, and family members that’s almost exactly like creating a new folder on your hard drive and adding pictures. Simply drag the name of a friend or connection into a newly created circle to assign them to that group, and when you create a new post (more on that below) you can select which circle will receive that update, allowing you to share the latest off-color South Park clip with your close friends (but not your uptight boss) and your goofy family reunion pictures with those who won’t judge (and not that first date who you’re hoping will turn into a second.)

Stream: Every real-time social media service has a “stream” of updates, and Google+ is no exception. You can comment on posts from your connections or “+1” those posts to effectively “like” them, and you can choose to make that affirmation public or visible just to your connections, sort of how pushing the Facebook Like button means you can appear on a third-party website endorsing an article or link to your friends who are signed into Facebook. The stream can be filtered to weed out the oversharers, and you can see content from people with whom you haven’t connected through an “Incoming” section, which will allow you to add that person to a circle or block them.

Sharing content in the stream is pretty simple: you can decide if the post should appear to the world (which means it might show up in Google search), to a specific circle, multiple “extended” circles of your connections and their connections, or specific individuals. You can add photos, links, or videos.

Sparks: This is the feature for the “What’s the best Italian restaurant in New York?” type of status update that people often pose to their connections on a social service. You can search for interests within Google+ and when something comes across from those interests that deserves further conversation, you can share that “spark” with your connections to get feedback or multiple opinions. These appear to be curated results from Google’s search coffers, but it’s not clear exactly where the interests in Sparks originate.

Hangouts: If you notice a bunch of your friends are online at the same time, or if something comes up that requires a more free-wheeling discussion than endless comments under a post, you can start a “Hangout,” or a group video chat service.

Everything Else: More details on Google+ can be found here.

It’s going to be a while before we find out whether or not this is something that will resonate with the public, and that’s actually a good thing: by launching the service in an invitation-only mode, Google will have time to discover flaws and fix bugs among a group of early adopters who are likely to be much more understanding when problems arise than the general public, which freaked out about the mistakes Google made when launching Google Buzz. Google’s taking a risk that Google+ won’t have enough users on board in its early days to facilitate connections, but it seems to have decided that erring on the side of getting privacy features right is more important than building a Facebook killer on Day 1.

Early reaction seems mixed.

MG Siegler, Techcrunch, who got an early look at the service: “From the little that I’ve seen so far, Google+ is by far the best effort in social that Google has put out there yet. But traction will be contingent upon everyone convincing their contacts to regularly use it.”

Danny Sullivan, Search Engine Land, who was also briefed: “As I said earlier, if you’re happy using Facebook, there seems relatively little to make you want to switch over to Google Plus, at the moment.”

Steven Levy, Wired, who was given in-depth access as part of his research on In The Plex: “But as I learned in almost year of following the project’s development, with multiple interviews with the team and its executives, Google+ is not a typical release. Developed under the codename Emerald Sea, it is a result of a lengthy and urgent effort involving almost all of the company’s products.”

Dave Winer, Scripting News: “Products like the one Google just announced are hatched at off-sites at resorts near Monterey or in the Sierra, and were designed to meet the needs of the corporation that created it. A huge scared angry corporation.”

5 Responses to “Socially Awkward Google Tries Biggest Facebook Challenge Yet With Google+”

  1. The more social networking sites popping up, the better for my new gig, J Social media is here to stay for good. Given vast variety of the existing channels to choose and stick with, it’s time for such a hot space to enter into a new category.

    Here is my 2cents on this whole internet -> search Engine -> Social media things and my rational on why there is a need for a portal to provide a quick and intelligent decision for both the consumer and the companies about their online connections. A Platform to Help us to Distinguish Our Quality vs. Quantity Friends, Fans, Followers, and Companies:

    – Early 90s: WWW was born…
    – Mid – late 90s: Yahoo & Google were born to help us to find the right pages on the WWW…
    – Early 2000: Social media was born…
    – Late 2000: There are now millions of pages created by people, companies, and organizations on all these social media channels.
    – 2011: We are back to early 90’s

    That is why I built to accomplish such a mission – the portal to all your existing social media channels.

    CEO & Founder

  2. If Google+ is built on Groups of contacts and Labels of content, which are great features of Gmail, that might be a pretty good idea. Because of those features I use Gmail constantly in both my professional and personal lives, while I use Facebook mainly with personal friends, and LinkedIn mainly with professional contacts.

  3. Your “socially awkward” headline here raises a good question. Being social does not seem to be Google’s core strength. They have deep enough pockets to try anything, and I love their willingness to take risks. But does being “social” stray too far from what Google does best? In other words, is it a good strategy for Google to pursue? The more I see of their efforts at being social, the more I wonder about this…

  4. Google+ needs more than ‘self-determined groups of connections’ to leave zits, nerds and socially-awkwards behind.
    Google needs to drink some new Gool-Aid to run with the big dogs in social media.
    To avoid being left behind, they need to partner with the new kids in town (, using new tools and channels like #mobile social activity messaging!Get in their thought bubble!Cheers,timo