Socially Awkward Google Tries Biggest Facebook Challenge Yet With Google+

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 Google.com 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.”

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